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Iconic Sports Commercials: Tiger Woods' 'Hacky Sack'

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports illustration)

Sometimes the commercial breaks during a big game provide more entertainment than what happens between the lines. Iconic Sports Commercials is a Yahoo Sports series highlighting some of the most unforgettable spots, from how they were conceived, to behind-the-scenes tales from the set, to what made them so influential.

Mean Joe Greene’s ‘Hey kid, catch!’ | Michael vs. Larry | Chicks Dig the Long Ball | Lil’ Penny | Tiger Woods’ ‘Hacky Sack’ | Charles Barkley: ‘I am not a role model’ | Bo Knows | Mars Blackmon | Grandmama

How it came about

Tiger Woods’ most famous commercial was largely a happy accident.

It only exists because of some quick thinking by a clever Nike employee.

Before filming began for a different Nike spot featuring Tiger in May 1999, Nike Golf general manager Chris Zimmerman made a big request. Zimmerman wanted to squeeze as much value as he could out of a rare day with Tiger, so he told his advertising team to look for opportunities to obtain footage for a second commercial during the shoot.

“Chris told me that it would be great to get something of Tiger after he changed into his spring apparel for an interview with the Golf Channel,” said Eric Markgraf, then an advertising director at Nike. “There was no other planning. That was it.”

Unsure what the premise for the second commercial would be or whether Tiger would even give permission to shoot it, Markgraf arrived at a swanky Orlando golf course worried about how he was going to satisfy his boss. The answer finally struck Markgraf during some downtime on the set when Tiger began nonchalantly bouncing a golf ball on the face of his pitching wedge like he was playing hacky sack.

To most observers, it was a display of remarkable hand-eye coordination. To Markgraf, it was advertising gold. He conferred with executives from Nike’s longtime advertising agency, Wieden + Kennedy, before asking Tiger if he’d be willing to do the trick on camera.

The payoff was a buzzy spot in which Woods juggles a ball on a club face for nearly 30 seconds while switching hands and going between his legs or behind his back. He finishes by popping the ball into the air and whacking it 200 yards down the driving range with a baseball swing.

When the shoot was over, Wieden + Kennedy first presented Zimmerman a rough cut of the primary commercial. It featured Tiger at the driving range with a bunch of everyday golfers who suddenly strike the ball like PGA pros in his presence only to begin wildly hooking and slicing it again once he leaves.

“OK, good spot,” Zimmerman said. “I like it.”

Wieden + Kennedy representatives then told Zimmerman they had some other footage they wanted to show him. To say he was floored would be an understatement.

“They put in the tape and obviously it was magical,” Zimmerman said. “The driving range spot was really a decent spot, but it only got a limited amount of airings because we had this other piece of film that was so special.”

How many takes did Tiger need?

The success of Tiger’s juggling commercial depended on it being filmed in one continuous shot.

That challenge only became more difficult when Tiger volunteered to end the 30-second spot by hitting the ball out of the air.

Onlookers from Nike and Wieden + Kennedy tried to help Tiger with his timing by counting down to the moment when he needed to swing at the ball. That backfired on each of Tiger’s first three attempts when he lost concentration and dropped the ball

"I kept messing up every time they said, 'OK, you got 10 seconds left!' I'd shank it right away," Tiger told the Associated Press in 1999. "I said, 'Don't tell me that. Just tell me when I've got three, four, five seconds. I can switch and end it.' "

Before his fourth attempt, the crew shooting the commercial found a more effective way to motivate Tiger — telling him that he was crumbling under pressure. Wieden + Kennedy creative director Chuck McBride even remembers an assistant director plunking down a crisp $100 bill on top of the camera and saying, “Tiger, I bet you that you can’t do it on the next one.”

“Tiger starts juggling again, I give him the cue and he just smacks it,” McBride said. “Everyone just stood there like, ‘S---, he just did it! Then Tiger reaches down, grabs the $100 bill and walks off.”

How difficult was Tiger’s juggling trick?

At the time that Tiger’s commercial first aired, it was a revelation. Not many golfers were doing tricks like these, and those who did weren’t fortunate enough to have Tiger’s platform or access to modern social media.

“When that got put on television, it reached a huge swathe of people who had never seen anything like that before,” said Ryan Rustand, a golf instructor and trick shot specialist with over 84,000 Instagram followers. “The little tricks he did here and there, the between-the-legs or hitting it out of the air, that was stuff I’m not sure that anyone had ever done.”

The popularity of the commercial inspired golfers of all ages to break out their sand wedges and try to bounce the ball on the club face. What they learned was that the people who claimed that Tiger’s trick was computer-generated were overestimating the degree of difficulty.

Rustand said he could duplicate what Tiger did after practicing it nonstop for a week or two. Same with brothers Wesley and George Bryan, professional golfers whose passion is trick shots. Heck, Tiger’s own niece, LPGA golfer Cheyenne Woods, recreated his famous commercial almost flawlessly in 2014.

“The tricks that Tiger did in the commercial really weren’t that hard,” George Bryan said. “It was just something that was never seen before, for us at least. He definitely made trick shots cool.”

Impact on pop culture

Chuck McBride was sitting in a New York sports bar watching the Knicks play in the 1999 NBA Finals when Nike’s new Tiger commercial aired for the first time.

Many people in the bar fell silent as Tiger juggled the ball on his club face before gasping and cheering when he hit the ball out of the air.

“I was like, ‘I guess we did something right here,’ ” said McBride, creative director at Wieden + Kennedy. “You try things and you go by instincts, but you don’t know if people are going to appreciate it. That reaction was very gratifying to me.”

From the moment the commercial first aired, America was transfixed. Viewers from coast to coast debated if the spot was a product of computer animation and clever video editing or if it was actually real.

“That led to the commercial getting great talk value and great notoriety, which was always one of our objectives,” Zimmerman said. “We verified it was real as soon as people started questioning it. That was obviously in our best interest.”

In June 1999, Tiger was on the cusp of sporting immortality but he had not yet achieved it. The Nike spot elevated his stature in popular culture almost as much as his ensuing dominance did over the next decade.

The popularity of the commercial inspired golfers young and old to emulate the juggling trick that Tiger made look effortless. Soon, kids mastered that and moved on to tricks that required even more dexterity and finesse, from pitching multiple ping-pong balls at once into the corner pockets of a pool table to popping the cork off a bottle of champagne with a perfectly aimed chip shot.

“Golf was a buttoned-up sport where creativity wasn’t the driving force, but once people saw that it created this separate outlet of what you can do with a golf club and ball,” Rustand said.

“That commercial was the reason every kid picked up a wedge and started bouncing a ball. Throughout my high school golf career, everyone just wanted to bounce the ball up and down when we had some free time to goof off. I definitely think that commercial had a big influence on that for sure.”

Three Fun Facts

1. The popularity of Tiger’s Nike spot marked the beginning of the end of Titleist’s relationship with him. The maker of Titleist golf balls filed a lawsuit in July 1999, arguing that the commercial made it appear Tiger used Nike balls and clubs. Not even a year later, Tiger severed ties with Titleist and announced he was switching to a new Nike ball he had helped test.

2. The director that shot the commercial was just a tad overqualified to point the camera at Tiger while he got the timing of his juggling trick down. Doug Liman had already directed Swingers in 1995 and he’d later direct Mr. and Mrs. Smith and produce The Bourne trilogy. Nike originally hired him to assist Lasse Hallstrom shooting the driving range spot.

3. The success of the spot spawned a 2001 sequel in which Woods juggles a ball with two clubs instead of one. Nike also released some funny outtakes during which at one point Tiger screams “choking dog” at himself after he keeps dropping the ball.