News & Opinion

Bridgestone’s ’18 ball game: ‘Tiger matters’

PITTSBURGH – I was surprised to bump into Tiger Woods at a local Golf Galaxy store here. 

It wasn’t Real Tiger Woods, of course. It was Cardboard Tiger Woods. His face was on a new display hawking Bridgestone golf balls. But yes, I really did bump into it. Was I not paying attention or did Cardboard Tiger jump in front of me? You make the call.

Anyway, it reminded me about how odd it is to think of Woods playing anything but a Nike ball. (OK, he originally was with Titleist, if you want to climb into the Way-Back Machine.) He wasn’t just closely identified with Nike’s brand; he was Nike’s brand. Nike got out of the golf equipment business in late 2016, though, so Woods got new gear: TaylorMade clubs and Bridgestone balls.

We didn’t think much about those changes in 2017 because Woods was off the radar for most of the year after recuperating from back-fusion surgery. He’s about to return to the PGA Tour this week in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in San Diego. He and his gear will get a lot of attention.

Signing Woods near the end of 2016 didn’t seem to create much commotion for Bridgestone last year after Woods withdrew from Dubai after one round, citing a back problem. If you thought it was a bad buy for Bridgestone, though, you thought wrong. Woods still moves the needle for the buying public.

Despite Woods being mostly missing in action, Bridgestone enjoyed its largest gross golf sales in company history. Those numbers are top secret, of course, but Bridgestone senior marketing director Corey Consuegra said, “We broke our all-time sales records last year, and Tiger played a major part in that.”

With the golf industry gathering this week for the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, Fla., Bridgestone can be expected to pitch Woods hard for 2018. It starts with those new cardboard displays at Golf Galaxy.

“Tiger is our focal point as a product endorser of all our golf balls, not just the Tour BX that he uses,” Consuegra said. “He’ll be the focal point of 80 percent of our creative in 2018. What we’ll use is very relevant ball-fitting data that proves our golf balls are superior, and we’ll hammer that message all year long. I promise we’ll do it respectfully, but we’re the only company with data from real consumers since 2007 that proves our golf balls are longer and straighter than the competition.”

At 42, Woods might have his best years behind him. Or maybe not. I saw too much of Woods in the 1990s to count him out. He’s in the same category as Jack Nicklaus, who made a run at the 1998 Masters at age 58. You didn’t think he could win it, but you also weren’t sure that he couldn’t. That’s where we are with Woods. Can he compete and win? If we’re lucky, we’ll get the chance to find out.

Either way, Bridgestone made a good buy. “If Tiger wasn’t healthy, did he still influence golfers to purchase?” Consuegra said. “We conducted survey testing of more than 1,000 people on multiple occasions. He’d been off the course for 16 months at the time, and our results said he increased purchase intent by 30 to 40 percent.

Signing Tiger was a data-based decision,” Consuegra said. “There was no doubt he’d move the needle.”

The Tiger Effect was evident on the Bridgestone website. During the Hero World Challenge in early December, with Woods flying the Bridgestone banner in competition, the website attracted as much traffic that week as it hard for the year’s entire third quarter, Consuegra said.

“It proves that even during a quiet time of year, Tiger drives traffic and awareness of our brand,” Consuegra said. “Forget Bridgestone Golf. Tiger drives awareness of golf itself. I saw some stats on how much Golf Channel viewership went up for the Hero versus almost any other Golf Channel event. Tiger matters.”

One difference between his Nike run and his Bridgestone run is that Woods will be playing a stock Bridgestone ball model – the Tour B XS, formerly the B330S – that you, too, can buy. Dozens were stacked right there in his cardboard display at Golf Galaxy. At Nike, he used a ball specifically designed for him that wasn’t available to the general public.

Of course, why would you want to play the same ball as Woods when your driver clubhead speed is probably 30 mph less than his? You wouldn’t. That idea fits well at Bridgestone, which is a big believer in fitting the golf ball to the player.

“Tiger transitioned into our products,” Consuegra said. “He tested the Tour B330S, now the Tour B XS, and it was perfect for him. He’d be the first to admit his ball may not be right for you, but we are not in a one-size-fits-all game. You’ve got to play the right ball for your game, and ball fitting is an area often overlooked.”

Bridgestone offers 10 distinct ball models and has gone to a common-sense approach on how to fit players: by using their golf scores. The Tour B and Tour B XS are for high-skilled players, such as Bridgestone staffers Matt Kuchar and Brandt Snedeker. The Tour B RX and Tour B RXS models are for mid-level players whose average score is nearer 80. Don’t break 100? Try the Bridgestone Extra Soft.

The main reason Woods switched to Bridgestone may have been the one he revealed at the start of last year. “What people don’t realize is that Bridgestone made the Nike golf ball for a number of years,” Woods said. “Making the switch wasn’t that hard.” 

He already was familiar with the product, in other words. Golf observers had long believed that Nike outsourced its ball production to Bridgestone facilities in Asia, but Woods was the first to publicly confirm the speculation.

That’s ancient news now. The marketing experts and their commercial messages, spread across every modern communication platform, will build a new Tiger Woods for the viewing public. By the end of this year, you’ll probably have a hard time remembering that he ever used anything but Bridgestone and TaylorMade.

But you won’t forget one thing. It’s what Consuegra said: Tiger matters.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle