Whether you’re a golf fan or not, you surely heard: Tiger Woods is back. The 14-time Major tournament winner had not played in a PGA Tour event since August 2015 before he hit the green this weekend for the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas.
24-year-old Hideki Matsuyama won the tournament, and Woods finished in 15th place out of 18 players (17 after Justin Rose withdrew). But Woods also finished with the most birdies (24), a sign that he can certainly compete again. His return is already stoking renewed fan excitement in the sport—and the sport needs it.
“Tiger moves the needle,” said Jordan Spieth, who finished tied at 6th in Nassau. “I think he can truly help get the numbers back up in golf that have been dropping a little bit.”
The most surprising part of Woods returning to action has to do with business: On the equipment side, he’s suddenly a free agent. And Woods would almost certainly “help get the numbers back up” for an equipment brand.
Woods has a long-term, lucrative relationship with Nike (NKE) as his apparel sponsor. But because Nike left the equipment business (manufacturing clubs and balls) this year, Woods is free to use any clubs he wants. And that’s exactly what he did at the Hero World Challenge.
Woods stuck with Nike irons and wedges at the tournament, but used a Titleist Scotty Cameron putter, Bridgestone balls, and most interestingly, a TaylorMade driver and woods.
TaylorMade is owned by Adidas, but the German sportswear giant announced in May it is looking to sell off the brand. Potential buyers could include Callaway (ELY) or newly-public Acushnet (GOLF) or even Woods himself—there is a rumor that the star is part of a private group considering buying TaylorMade. His use of a TaylorMade driver at the Hero World Challenge may only stoke that rumor further.
— Rick Young (@RickSCOREGolf) September 15, 2016
Nike halting its equipment business opens up a number of possibilities for golfers. It allows Woods to sign with a different club-maker whenever he chooses, and it also allows any golfer signed with TaylorMade for clubs to sign with Nike for apparel, since Nike is no longer an equipment competitor. Jason Day, current world No. 1, did just that, re-signing with TaylorMade for clubs (regardless of who might own it soon) and signing a new contract with Nike for shoes and apparel that will begin in January.
Unsurprisingly, equipment companies have already made efforts to woo Woods by sending clubs and balls to his home, and they’ve done the same with his fellow Nike golfer Rory McIlroy. Woods may be ranked No. 650 in the world, but there’s no golf equipment company that wouldn’t want him sporting its logo.
The struggles the equipment side is facing aren’t necessarily a positive for every golfer. It might mean fewer lucrative equipment deals for golfers below the very top tier, pro golfer Pat Perez predicted in an interview with Yahoo Finance. “The guys aren’t going to be making as much money as they could have been, but the game will go on,” he said.
Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.