The 2015 U.S. Masters Golf Tournament tees off on the immaculately pruned greens of Augusta on Thursday with the pre-game talk focusing on the return of Tiger Woods.
Woods is touted as being ready for a major comeback this weekend and bookmakers are giving him more favorable odds than his global ranking of 111 probably deserves. However, Jon Stainer, the U.K. and Ireland managing director of sports marketing firm Repucom, believes rival Rory McIlroy will deliver tough challenges for Woods—and not just on the greens and fairways of Georgia.
"Rory's a hugely marketable young man, 25 years old (and) four major titles under his belt," he told CNBC Thursday. "He's taken golf out of the traditional broadsheets and the broadcast coverage into more of the lifestyle press."
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McIlroy has enjoyed success during a period in which Woods' form has dipped. The Northern Irishman is number one in the world and global sports brand Nike has signed him up alongside Woods. Video game manufactures Electronic Arts has introduced McIlroy into its branding in what was once the traditional mainstay for Woods.
The Masters is seen as the start of the golfing season and one of the biggest events for sports manufacturers. McIlroy starts as clear favorite for the green jacket in a tournament he has never won and has only had one top 10 finish.
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Stainer explained that golf has managed to lower the demographic of its viewership and with icons like McIlroy, brands have managed to launch new clothing lines and form a much more "edgier" appeal for golf enthusiasts. One Direction's Niall Horan even caddied for McIlroy in a traditional warm-up contest ahead of the Masters which Stainer said added to the "celebrity lifestyle and marketability of him."
McIlroy has annual sponsorship deals worth upwards of $40 million, according to Stainer, and added that he still remains the frontrunner in terms of his overall marketability.
"Over a third of people know of the Northern Irishman globally; where over 71 percent say they like the player. In the U.S., that figure is even greater, where over 45 percent of people know of the player, 85 percent say they find him appealing," according to research published on Wednesday by Repucom.
Meanwhile, golf master Woods has won 14 major tournaments in the sport he had dominated since the late 1990s, but has suffered a decline in form since 2009. His poor performances and absence from tournaments have even been cited as being a key reason behind a decline in golf viewership and equipment sales.
However, Woods still ranked sixth last June in a Forbes' list of world's highest-paid athletes. The publication estimated that he still had earnings of $61.2 million with his Nike sponsorship still remaining one of the biggest in sports.
Repucom's research showed that Woods still has huge appeal. Out of the 85 percent of people who watch golf surveyed in the U.S., who said that they would probably tune into this year's Masters at some point, 12 percent said they didn't plan to if Woods wasn't playing.