Tiger's Nike Golf Ad: Awesome, Slimy, or Both?

We've already pointed out that Tiger's participation in the Masters—no matter the outcome—will be the stuff of cinema. Turns out, Nike agrees. Before the golfer hit the first tee box, Nike Golf had already released its first new ad starring Woods. Love it or hate it, it's mesmerizing. But why?

In terms of image rehab, this is as well-played as it gets. The wearied stoicism of Tiger's expression, those mournful eyes, and that misty, Mona Lisa backdrop impart a timeless, placeless plea for forgiveness. But it's Earl Woods's voice-over that makes it riveting. If Tiger were speaking in his own defense, we'd no doubt hear more of the trite, shifty stuff we saw at Sawgrass. Instead, it's the soothing, gentle chiding of Earl, here presented as the only person who can reprove Woods with any impact. "I want to find out what your thinking was … did you learn anything?" he implores, softly. This ad is remarkable for its ability to achieve universality (a son suffering the disappointment of a father) and its specificity (Tiger, suited up for Augusta; Earl, omniscient beyond the grave). You can't watch this ad and not feel something.

As a tactic, Nike tried the same postscandal image rehab with Kobe Bryant a few years ago, but it was a totally different angle: the ads were a sweat-sluiced training montage, with a mega-defiant Bryant talking trash and pumping iron. How Nike treated each guy—how necessary it was for the company to extract viewer empathy—is tied to a single bottom line: one guy was found innocent, and the other, guilty. So only one of them was sorry.

Naturally, you don't have to think long and hard about the Woods spot to realize it's tainted love. It looks like a black-and-white tone poem, but it smells like a fresh bag of range balls—its purpose, really, is to start selling some clubs again. Nike Golf earns points for being the only sponsor big enough to stand by their man—but they earn only a few, because, commercially, they need him the most. The entire golf sector of the sports-equipment monolith is a house that Tiger built; without him, it's back to playing second fiddle to Titleist.

Yes, there's something slimy about exhuming the grave of Earl Woods again—to defend his son. It's not much of a gamble to say Earl would be standing behind his son right now, but a bigger one to say he'd be standing behind his son in the name of shilling more Nike Golf merch.