By Ben Klayman
DETROIT (Reuters) - Tiger Woods' sponsors can afford to be patient despite the worst performance of the star golfer's career, but his wallet will feel the pain if he cannot recapture his dominance.
The world's No. 1 golfer produced his worst finish on the U.S. PGA Tour circuit at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational this past weekend, stringing together four over-par rounds to finish near the bottom.
Having already lost up to $35 million in annual sponsorship revenue when such companies as Accenture Plc and AT&T Inc scotched endorsement deals following revelations of his marital infidelities, Woods can't afford repeated whiffs.
"There's no doubt his pathetic play this past weekend has many people questioning whether he can actually come back to his old form," said Marc Ganis, president of consulting firm Sportscorp Ltd. "For the first time ever, people are doubting Tiger Woods as a competitive golfer.
"If he continues playing this poorly, his value as an endorser will decrease dramatically," Ganis added. "The only question is how long does he have to enhance his play. I'd say he's got a while, months if not a year or two."
Woods, who has yet to win this year after eight PGA Tour starts, also cannot just be competitive if he wants to retain his perch as the world's richest pitchman. He must return to past dominance with multiple wins, analysts said.
"No one's going to touch him while he's losing," said Doug Shabelman, president of Burns Entertainment, which matches celebrities with companies for endorsements, about new deals. "You could say 'buy low,' but people think it's too early."
Studies seem to bear that out. In the latest Davie Brown Index, used by corporate clients to determine a celebrity's ability to influence consumers, Woods' appeal ranked 2,479th, down slightly from April and from 96th before the scandal.
STILL A STAR
Woods' agent could not be reached to comment, but it is clear the golfer understands the pressure he is under.
"(I'm) just not playing well," a grim-faced Woods said on Sunday after a tournament he has won seven times.
"It's been a long year," the 14-time major champion said, hinting at the impact of the revelation of his multiple infidelities and unraveling marriage to Swedish wife Elin.
For now, sponsors such as athletic shoe and clothing giant Nike Inc, video game publisher Electronic Arts Inc and sports memorabilia company Upper Deck, all of which sell products with Woods' name on them, are not abandoning the athlete.
"We support Tiger and never underestimate his abilities as a competitor," Nike Golf spokeswoman Beth Gast said in an email. "He's a phenomenal athlete with over 70 wins on the PGA Tour and 95 wins worldwide."
Other sponsors include Procter & Gamble Co's Gillette, Berkshire Hathaway Inc's NetJets unit, LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA's Tag Heuer and TLC Vision, many of which shifted away from using Woods in marketing, but did not end their endorsement deals.
"The sponsors who have stood by him realize it's going to be a while, but they place a lot of faith that at some point in the future his stock will rise once again," said John Rowady, president of rEvolution, a sports marketing and media firm.
Shabelman thinks Woods' struggles could humanize him, making a comeback even more powerful to consumers and sponsors if he can regain his winning touch.
Even if Woods makes less in sponsorship revenue or has to sign smaller deals, he's still a star, said Mark Lazarus, president of media and marketing at Career Sports & Entertainment. He said that Woods got more TV coverage than the WGC-Bridgestone event's winner, Hunter Mahan.
"To say it's been a disastrous year is an overstatement," Lazarus said. "Woods is up and down like every mortal golfer.
"There's no doubt that he has lost some of his influence and luster as a pitchman, but he is still widely recognized as the greatest and most influential golfer of the last decade."
(Reporting by Ben Klayman. Editing by Robert MacMillan)