HBO Max debuted its new two-part documentary about the life of Tiger Woods last month. It covers the golf icon’s early victories, struggles with relationships and his ballooning ego as fans and corporate sponsorships poured in. Unfortunately for Buick, its multi-million dollar investment in Tiger Woods ended with it facing down bankruptcy. It got off light.
Buick sponsored Tiger Woods at the height of his early career successes, as detailed in HBO Max’s new documentary, cleverly titled Tiger. The sponsorship lasted from 2000 to 2008 and ended as a result of the global financial crisis. It was also right at the beginning of a personal struggle for Tiger Woods. I can’t help but wonder what the sponsorship actually accomplished for both parties, if anything, now that the dust has settled.
In the summer of 2001, Woods’ Nike sponsorship was worth over $100 million. CNN Money mentioned it as a passing note in a larger story wondering how far the player could take golf and when he’d peak. At the start of Woods’ initial deal with Buick in 1999, it was estimated to be worth around $5 million a year, though it was extended multiple times before it was “mutually” terminated a year early on Dec. 31, 2008.
Buick had good reason to put money into Tiger; golf was getting big, and he was the one pulling in the eyeballs. Sunday viewership of Woods during the 2001 Buick Invitational received a Nielsen Media Research rating of 5.7 (equivalent to approximately one million U.S. homes per rating point), beating out the competing NBA All-Star game. “The following week’s Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, in which [Woods] did not play, had an average rating of 2.7,” CNN Money concluded.
Buick seemed to be getting its money’s worth. One year into sponsoring him, Woods won the aptly-titled 2001 Buick Invitational. The car company showed its gratitude by presenting Woods with his own concept car. Buick claimed to have designed the 2001 Bengal Concept with him specifically in mind, hence the cat name. It was a two-plus-two convertible notable for having a six-speed automatic transmission mounted in front of its supercharged 3.4-liter V6, and tiny rear doors opening into space for rear seats that could comfortably accommodate two sets of golf clubs.
The Bengal was meant for a market of new youthful golfers inspired by Tiger Woods. With the terminal economic condition looming, the Bengal never made it to production. As for Buick’s dreams of throngs of young golf fans flocking to the brand, those buyers never quite materialized.
Buick ultimately dodged the scandal that in 2009 cost Woods millions of dollars in corporate sponsorships. Buick had cut its ties at the end of 2008 for its own reasons. Its parent company General Motors was on a direct path toward bankruptcy. Amid the historic economic recession, GM’s executives were sure it could not survive.
If anything, it’s surprising the sponsorship lasted as long as it did. Buick faced years of declining sales, and didn’t end its second five-year sponsorship agreement (estimated to be $7 million a year) with Tiger Woods until just one year before it was set to expire.
For all of the eyeballs Woods brought to Buick, it didn’t help move any cars. The automaker’s U.S. sales plummeted as Woods ascended. Buick sales fell 54 percent from 2000 to 2007, as ESPN reported in 2008 via Ward’s AutoInfoBank, despite the millions of dollars paid to the golfer Buick was still defending its decision to maintain its sports sponsorships while begging for billions of dollars in federal relief from the U.S. government. Not a great look. From ESPN:
GM has been making dramatic cuts in advertising as it tries to conserve cash. The nation’s largest automaker spent nearly $7 billion more than it took in last quarter and has warned that without federal help, it may reach the minimum amount of cash required to run the company by the end of the year.
Mark LaNeve, GM’s vice president for North American marketing, said GM and Woods started discussing an end to the deal earlier this year, and it had nothing to do with the Detroit Three automakers’ quest for $25 billion in federal loans.
But GM’s statement said the decision was made as part of “the search for budget efficiencies during a difficult economy for General Motors.”
In the final weeks of 2008, GM planned its complicated bankruptcy and restructuring. GM came to an end and New GM took its place, as recounted by Jay Alex, “architect” of the plan, writing for Forbes Magazine in 2013. Hummer, Saturn, Saab and Pontiac were left behind. Chevrolet, Cadillac, GMC and Buick stayed.
The data at the time must have reflected that Buick was worth saving, likely thanks to new international growth, particularly in the steadily booming Chinese market that had just become the second-largest car market in the world in 2007. On its own, Buick’s sales in the Asia-Pacific market grew 11 percent in the same year. Meanwhile, as his former sponsor crumbled, Tiger Woods’ health was deteriorating from the wear of his sport, leading him to more surgeries and more issues with his medications, while partying away from his family and conducting affairs with various women.
It was clear that Tiger Woods’ and his father’s intense dedication to golf was paying off, literally, in vast sums of money. And it was transforming his personality. As HBO’s Tiger documents in its second episode, the star went from a geeky, motivated teenager to someone he himself described as “entitled” in an interview, more reflective of other popular, wealthy and single sports celebrities he hung out with. Despite his 2004 marriage, his partying increased. But it wasn’t just this wealth and fame that contributed to the reported personal turmoil in his marriage and relationships behind the scenes.
As the HBO documentary highlights, Tiger shared a very complicated and strained relationship with his parents, and particularly with his father Earl Woods. Earl repeatedly hyped his son as something more than just a kid who was good at golf, more than just the next celebrity athlete, and more than anybody could have expected him to be. In one interview clip, he claimed his son was the chosen one who would touch people all over the world, saying, “I don’t know yet exactly what form this will take. But he is the Chosen One. He’ll have the power to impact nations. Not people. Nations. The world is just getting a taste of his power.” Now, imagine the implications of growing up, isolated from friends, focused on sports and that’s what you’re promised, probably every day. It would have a significant impact on your outlook.
Earl repeatedly claimed in interviews that he and his son shared a brotherly relationship, and their circle was known to celebrate Tiger’s incredible victories with parties — often hosted by tournament sponsors, some of which were naturally, sponsored by Buick. The documentary reveals more information about Earl Woods’ various alleged affairs with women while traveling and touring with Tiger, affairs that led Tiger to keep secrets from his mother. Woods’ longtime caddie, Joe Grohman, also admitted to exposing Tiger to his various affairs during his upbringing and early career.
Correction: This paragraph previous incorrectly identified Stevie Williams as the caddy who admitted to misconduct in the HBO documentary. We regret the error.
In 2009, Tiger Woods was discovered to be cheating on Nordegren with Rachel Uchitel. In the documentary, Uchitel claims she met Tiger Woods at a party she was hosting in New York City, where he gave her his phone number after a short conversation. The couple’s affair continued, along with later allegations that Woods was also seeing other women.
In late 2009, Woods was involved in a car crash in his Cadillac Escalade just outside his home in the middle of the night, reportedly following an altercation stemming from Nordegren’s discovery of evidence of one of his affairs. Despite Buick having already ended its sponsorship with Woods, General Motors responded by rescinding Woods’ other benefits, like his free access to some GM vehicles.
It was later revealed that Woods was reported initially unresponsive by the police officer responding to his crash, likely due to medication he was known to take to help him sleep. After a $164 fine, four points on his license, months of therapy and the release of multiple reports of affairs with other women dating back to 2007, Woods and Nordegren divorced in August of 2010.
Tiger Woods didn’t save Buick—remember there was a 54-percent drop in sales figures over six of the seven full years of the sponsorship deal. You can’t blame Woods specifically, though. The brand was still seen as a car for older buyers, but Woods may have helped with that.
“The average age of the brand’s buyers also dropped. Around 2001, the average age was in the low 70s, but it has since fallen to 66 for Buick sedans and 53 for the Enclave,” ESPN.com reported in 2008. Woods was paired up with the then all-new Enclave crossover in its marketing materials, and, “78 percent of consumers who bought the SUV previously had not been Buick owners,” according to the same article. Maybe it was Tiger, maybe it was just that crossovers and SUVs were booming in America before the Recession.
Perhaps the program just needed a few more decades of a beloved Tiger, a few more golf titles to get those age numbers into the 40s, but it never happened. What really saved Buick when choosing which brands would live on under “New GM” was the promising growth of sales in the rapidly expanding Chinese car market. GM reported global sales grew by three percent and regional Asian Pacific sales grew 17 percent in 2007, which was a promise that has paid off for GM today. If I was Tiger, I guess I’d take credit for that.
For Tiger Woods, the mutually-terminated near-nine-year Buick deal left him with millions, but those years also included scandal and divorce, public shame and millions in lost sponsorships. He was denounced by golf organizers and faced the ire of the country.
Thanks to the 2009 federal government bailout that offered up billions to finance the “New GM”, today Buick is arguably healthier than ever. It’s one of the largest American automakers established in China, with a full lineup from luxury minivans to all-electric station wagons. As for the sport of golf, its popularity continued after Tiger’s prime passed, but with him to thank for a new generation’s excitement for the sport. Tiger Woods himself has managed to successfully return to golf after not one but two scandals, the second involving him getting arrested in 2017 for driving under the influence of prescription medication. Despite that, and despite four knee and four back operations, he still manages to show flashes of his brilliance, coming back with an iconic win at the Masters at Augusta in 2019.
It was not the money that led Tiger Woods astray, but rather the overbearing and unsustainable pressure of his youth, beginning at birth with his father. His decisions, his commitment and dedication to his sport at the cost of family and everything else, is what led to his scandals. That pressure also made him the thing that the sponsorship money was paying for, and what dad always wanted him to be: a winner.