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Tiger Woods, Nike and stories about race in America through golf

Apparel giant has been important in creating Woods’ brand and his public perception

It was a long time coming for Charlie Sifford and Lee Elder to receive the attention they were due as Black golf pioneers.

Sifford and Elder were two of the best African American golfers during an era when the PGA of America’s Caucasian-only clause had relegated them mostly to the United Golf Association. During one stretch in 1966, Elder won 21 of 23 events that he played on the all-Black tour. Five years earlier, Sifford held the distinction of being the Jackie Robinson of the sport, becoming the first Black member of the PGA Tour in 1961.

Sifford and Elder were heroes to generations of Black golfers — pro and amateur. Sure, they weren’t the only Black golf pioneers, but they were the ones that we knew best. Everybody had a story about the greatness of Bill Spiller and Ted Rhodes, who pressured the PGA to end the clause, but they were two Black golfers who never got a real opportunity to play the PGA Tour.

By 1997, Elder and Sifford had been followed by many Black players on to the PGA Tour, but they are the ones in a Nike commercial with Tiger Woods. The commercial, which first aired that June, is set against the backdrop of Woods’ historic victory that April in the Masters Tournament, where a mere eight months before his birth in 1975 Elder had become the first African American to play in the tournament. In the commercial, Woods, Sifford and Elder enjoy a conversation as they walk down a fairway.

“Thank you, Mr. Sifford,” Wood says. “Thank you, Mr. Elder. I won’t forget. You were the first. I refuse to be the last.”

I first saw this commercial on my parents’ Zenith floor model TV: the same kind of TV where I had seen other seminal sports commercials such as “Mean” Joe Greene’s 1979 Coca-Cola spot and the Mars Blackmon It’s Gotta Be The Shoes ad with film director Spike Lee and NBA star Michael Jordan in 1991. But what made the Woods-Sifford-Elder commercial special was how it masterfully crystallized the journey of African Americans in the game in a 30-second spot.

For me and many others, it was as much a history lesson and public service announcement as much as it was marketing for Nike products. I didn’t have to imagine the links across generations — from slavery to Reconstruction to the Jim Crow era to the Civil Rights Movement — I could see it through these three Black men.

Golfer Lee Elder (left) poses with golfer Tiger Woods (right) during the 2000 Masters Tournament at the Augusta National in Augusta, Georgia.

David Cannon/Allsport

Woods’ announcement this week of his split with Nike after 27 years was a reminder for me of the symbolic power of that commercial. Perhaps, his most enduring legacy as an ambassador for the shoemaker is that by wearing its iconic swoosh logo he was able to tell a story about race in America and the game of golf in a way that was accessible and inspirational.

Maybe the best part of the 15-time major winner’s career with Nike is that it didn’t become so large that it overshadowed his main brand as a Black man who defied racism and structural barriers to become the best player of his generation and one of the all-time greats. We won’t remember Woods’ products at Nike in the way that Air Jordans have come to define Jordan’s entire career. The swoosh, never meant to overshadow the athlete, receded more into the distance as the golfer’s story has unfolded over the years and the company has discontinued its club and ball businesses.

Yet since signing Woods to a reported $40 million deal after he turned pro in 1996, Nike has been an important piece in the creation of the Tiger Woods brand and the role of race in his self-making and how he is perceived by the public.

In Nike’s I am Tiger Woods commercial, which aired in 1997, children project a utopian view of golf as democratic and inclusive. These kids are not affluent country club kids. They live in cities and take public transportation to the course. They represent the melting pot that is America. Their parents, like Woods’ parents, Earl and Kultida Woods, didn’t grow up playing golf. They taught themselves to play the game with books and videos, so that they could teach their kids to play.

I am Tiger Woods and his first Nike ad, Hello World, evoke Langston Hughes’ I Too poem in how African Americans have set out to announce their place in a world that might deny them fairness and equity. The outsider — “the darker brother” who eats in the kitchen — shows the world his worthiness. “They’ll see how beautiful I am/And be ashamed — I, too, am America,” Hughes writes. Woods is similarly bold in these ads — ready for the world, unflinching and confident of his future in golf.

With Nike, Woods showed millions of people through these commercials how the darker brother, this invisible man, this man who could have been a caddie or a cook at a club, changed the game of golf.

Near the end of the commercial in 1997 with Sifford and Elder, Woods tells them, “There’s a jacket in Augusta with my name on it. There’s a jacket in Augusta with your soul on it.” Woods will go on to wear a different logo on his chest and endorse other apparel for the rest of his career, but he won’t ever be able to shake the stories he told for generations wearing the swoosh — stories of American history.

Farrell Evans has written about the intersection of race and sports for many publications including Sports Illustrated, Golf Magazine, GQ, The Oxford American, Bleacher Report, ESPN.com and Andscape, where he writes regularly about golf.