Tiger Woods' golf game is flowing again. And if he keeps it up, his endorsement dollars could start to flow again too.
Woods cruised to a two-stroke victory on Sunday at the Cadillac Championship, finishing 19-under for the tournament. It was his fifth PGA Tour win in the last year.
Five or 10 years ago, that sort of production from Woods wouldn't have surprised anyone. But after his public meltdown and admission of infidelity in 2009, it looked like the 14-time Major champion would never be the same. After a stint in rehab to treat sex addiction, he spent the next two years winless, battling injuries and firing long-time caddy Steve Williams.
Several sponsors pulled out of their agreements with Woods, with Accenture (ACN) and General Motors (GM) dropping him outright and Gillette (PG) and TAG Heuer pulling ads featuring the golfer. By one estimate, Woods lost as much $30 million in endorsements, and with them the title of highest-paid athlete in the world. His only significant endorsement since was a 2011 deal with Rolex.
But now Tiger is winning again, and we're more than three years removed from his sex scandal. Will the brands come knocking again?
It's Great to Be a Winner (and Not to Be Lance Armstrong)
"There's no doubt that he's going to get back his endorsement power," says Larry McCarthy, a sports marketing expert and business professor at Seton Hall University. "We're extremely forgiving of [athletes] like Woods once they continue to play at the level they were at."
Indeed, there's ample precedent of athletes playing their way back into the public's good graces after a scandal. Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis was charged with obstruction of justice in connection with a double-murder, only avoiding jail time by testifying against two of his companions; he went on to have a hall-of-fame career, picked up endorsements from Under Armour and EA Sports, and even had a road in Baltimore named after him. Meanwhile, Kobe Bryant was charged with sexual assault after an encounter with a 19-year-old employee of a Denver hotel; the charges were later dropped, though the Lakers star did admit to infidelity. He held onto most of his endorsements.
Another factor potentially working in Woods' favor is Lance Armstrong. The seven-time Tour de France winner's recent admission that he used performance-enhancing drugs prompted his own sponsors -- including Nike (NKE), Anheuser-Busch and 24 Hour Fitness -- to cut ties with the disgraced cyclist. Even if Woods doesn't pick up any of those lost endorsements (he's already signed on with Nike), it stands to reason that his personal struggles suddenly don't look so bad when compared to someone who repeatedly cheated as an athlete.
But as always, would-be sponsors will prioritize performance above all. So we imagine many brands will be watching closely when Woods heads to Augusta National to compete in the Masters. If Woods wins, it will be his first Major championship since 2008, and that more than anything will likely have sponsors once again considering Woods as a celebrity spokesman.
"If he wins the Masters or wins another Major, people would start to consider it seriously," says McCarthy.
With his most recent win in the books, Woods has already been anointed the odds-on favorite, with Vegas odds pegging his chances for victory at 4-1.
If the odds-makers are to be believed, his main competition in the tournament will be 23-year-old Rory McIlroy -- who just joined Woods at Nike when he signed a nine-figure endorsement deal in January.
Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.