How Frank became the most famous headcover in the world

Golf


SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — He has been with Tiger Woods through it all.

Through three U.S. Junior Amateurs victories, three U.S. Amateurs and an NCAA championship. Through 81 PGA Tour wins. Through five Masters, four PGA Championships, three U.S. Opens and three Open Championships. Through the death of Woods’ father, Earl. Through Fluff, Stevie and Joey. Through the injuries. Through the off-the-course issues. Through the comeback.

Frank has been through it all.

Wait … who’s Frank? He’s just the most famous headcover in the world. Yeah, that Frank. Frank has become as synonymous with Woods as his Sunday red. He has been sitting atop Tiger’s bag for almost 30 years.

“It’s kind of taken its own kind of shape,” Woods said.

But before it was named Frank, before it was given a personality and Paul Giamatti’s voice in an ad campaign, before it starred in commercials, before it had its own clothing line, it was just a plush headcover sold at golf shops by Jane Spicer, the founder of Daphne’s Headcovers.

That’s where Kultida Woods, Tiger’s mother, found it.

“She wasn’t able to go to a lot of my amateur events and my dad was taking me. It was her way of saying that she’s always there with me even though she can’t be there. So, my mom has always been there with me even though she hasn’t been there physically.”

Tiger Woods

She bought Tiger his first tiger headcover when he was around 13 years old from the pro shop at the Big Canyon Country Club in Newport Beach, California, where Earl Woods was then an honorary member.

Sandy Huber, a pro at Big Canyon since 1983, sold Kultida that first tiger headcover — which she bought from Spicer — starting a long friendship with both. It also, unbeknownst to them, started what would become an international phenomenon.

Woods had been using a black and white headcover that he received while playing in a Southern California junior event. Woods loved it. When Kultida gave Tiger the tiger, he put it on and the rest, as they say, is history.

But it became more than just a headcover to Tiger. Kultida hand sewed the words “Love Always, Mom” on the back of the headcover in Thai, her native language.

“She wasn’t able to go to a lot of my amateur events and my dad was taking me,” Woods said, adding that she missed “a lot” of his important amateur and junior wins but has been in attendance for most of his major wins. “It was her way of saying that she’s always there with me even though she can’t be there. So, my mom has always been there with me even though she hasn’t been there physically.”

Kultida started doing it in the late 1980s and has been hand sewing the phrase ever since, sending Tiger a new, hand embroidered headcover every year. The old ones sometimes end up at as a chew toy for Tiger’s dogs or go to charity, whatever Kultida wants to do with them. What has turned into an annual tradition between Tiger and his mom has become a “source of motivation” for Tiger, his former caddie, Steve Williams said.

Williams, who caddied for Tiger from 1999 to 2011, said Woods looked at the tiger headcover as a lucky charm and thought it brought “a positive vibe” at the start of each season.

“Oh, my God, it’s incredible,” Tiger said. “She’s always been there for me.”

While the tiger became a bond between a son and his mother, it was born out of a love between the daughter and mother who created it.

Long before there was Frank, there were just tiger headcovers.

And before them, there were just puppets.

Spicer started making and selling puppets in 1979, when she was 16. One of her customers suggested she also start making headcovers. She was intrigued. With the help of her mother, she made just enough headcovers to fit in a hat case she bought at Goodwill. If she sold enough, her mother bribed her, she’d buy Spicer a car.

Spicer’s first customer was the Arizona Biltmore Golf Club. The director of golf at the time, Pete Robbeloth, bought her headcovers despite what Spicer called a “lousy sales pitch.” Her mother’s bribe worked. Spicer sold enough to earn a 1973 red Volkswagen bug. But she didn’t stop there. She continued to make the headcovers with the help of her mother throughout high school and college — where she sold the headcovers for beer money. For years, though, the headcovers were a side business to the puppets.

After graduating from college in 1985, Spicer spent the next six years traversing the country, selling the puppets at art festivals and crafts shows on weekends from Tempe to Austin to Aspen. In between shows, Spicer would stop at golf courses along the way. The more golf shops she visited, the more she heard about how many golfers were using her headcovers.

She didn’t think anything about it at the time. She was too busy building a company. Spicer came off the road to focus on the headcovers full time in 1991. By then, she had already started hearing about this one young golfer, Eldrick Woods, who was pretty good and had her tiger headcover on his bag.

For years, the tiger was just another product in Spicer’s line of headcovers. It was designed based on one of her puppets.

When Spicer and her mother first designed the tiger, they drew the original sketch on newspaper with a Sharpie, coming up with the pattern on their own.

“That’s what we thought a tiger looked like,” Spicer said. “That was our version of a tiger.”

But they didn’t get the paper delivered, so they’d ask their neighbors to save it so they could draw out their ideas.

When their sketch was done, they’d sew a prototype together with scrap pieces of fabric. Then, over coffee every morning doubling as a collaboration session, they’d tweak it. After four or five versions, Spicer and her mom, Daphne, whom Spicer’s company is named after, found the tiger they wanted.

“The design is extra special because my mom and I did it, and just as a tiger on our line,” Spicer said. “We had no idea that it would become the most famous headcover in the world.”

Spicer had the plan in her head. She and her mom would build the business together. Her mom would help take care of Spicer’s son after he was born while Spicer dedicated every waking hour she could to the company.

Then everything changed.

In 1996, Spicer’s mom died after a sudden illness. Spicer was lost. The next year was the “the most horrific time” of her life, but in April 1997, Woods won the Masters and life changed again.

“All of a sudden here was this design that I probably would have changed and then, bam, it was known globally,” Spicer said. “So, I always felt like it was kind of like my mom helping me through the grief because I was so busy I couldn’t grieve. I had to run our company.

“That made it extra special.”

Spicer has redesigned or tinkered with almost every one of her other headcovers over the years. But not the tiger. She is honoring her late mother by leaving it as it has been for more than 20 years.

“I’m not touching it,” she said. “I think I did quite well with this one.”

Many would agree.

Woods’ last two caddies, Joe LaCava and Williams, said no one has tried to steal the headcover from Woods’ bag. LaCava said people just want to touch it and pet it and Williams was offered cash for it “several times.”

Once Woods began winning and, seemingly, didn’t stop for years, Spicer’s business was, to say the least, good.

As a new, small business owner, she wasn’t equipped nor did she know how to handle the upcoming onslaught. There was the time she got a call from a small golf shop in California ordering 30,000 tiger headcovers. The person on the phone said they’d pay more than Spicer charged to get “premium service” but they needed them as soon as possible. Spicer didn’t take the call seriously and said she’d need half of the payment up front. A day later, FedEx delivered a check with more zeros than she’d ever seen. But she had a problem. All her headcovers were hand sewn. She wasn’t sure the order was doable.

It turns out the order was for American Express, who, at the time, was one of Woods’ sponsors. The company had used the small golf shop to remain covert.

After Woods won the Masters in 1997, Spicer’s business grew 400% in one quarter. And it didn’t stop.

She was learning how to scale on the fly. She was learning how to be the company that made Woods’ headcover.

All of Spicer’s interactions with Kultida have been “very nice, very polite, very warm.” There have been times when Kultida called Spicer directly to ask for more headcovers. Other times, it’ll be a golf club or a rep calling on behalf of Tiger and his mom. Once, though, that almost didn’t work.

A call came into Spicer’s office one day early in Tiger (headcover) Mania from someone calling for Kultida. They needed a tiger headcover for Tiger. The call just happened to come during a time when Spicer was completely out of the tiger headcovers.

The employee who picked up the phone had one hand on her hips and was all but yelling into the phone: “I don’t care if her name is Mrs. Woods. We don’t have any tigers and she can’t have any.”

Spicer sprinted across the room and pulled the phone out of her employee’s hands. Since then, Spicer has kept six tigers on hand just in case Kultida needed one.

The company started with just her and her mother. Over the next 40 years, it has swelled to more than 100 employees, Spicer said, but now has leveled off at 20 with production in China and Indonesia. She started to manufacture overseas to keep up with demand. She tried to simplify her business as much as she could and went to a first-come, first-served model. Along the way, Spicer started to watch more and more of Woods’ tournaments and became a fan of the man who was changing her life win by win.

“Our business just completely changed,” she said.

For years, Spicer had yet to meet Woods, the man who, single-handedly, made her business an international success. In part, she didn’t want to. She never wanted to feel as if she were imposing on his time. Since he had been gracious enough to use her headcover, she didn’t want to feel as if she were intruding. So she turned down a number of opportunities to meet him.

Then, in 2015, Woods announced he would be playing in the Phoenix Open. A mutual friend told Woods that Spicer would be at the tournament and would like to finally meet him. He agreed on the spot and invited her to the driving range. Spicer remembered Woods seeing her out of the corner of his eye, putting down his clubs and coming over to give her a big hug. He thanked her for supporting him, a sentiment Kultida has shared with Spicer repeatedly over the years, and one that Spicer finds funny. Spicer says she is the one who should be doing the thanking.

The two talked about the headcover, dogs and their kids. They also took a photo that Spicer sent to her son, who immediately called. Spicer didn’t pick up and the calls and texts continued, as she and Woods shared a good laugh.

“He couldn’t have been nicer,” she said. “Just warm and nice and comfortable and very generous with his time.”

Spicer started to get licensing deals and partnerships. Whoever Woods was endorsed by came calling.

It was organized chaos around her.

At one point, she was on a four-month wait for the headcovers. Once, while she was sold out, she got a call from one of the major golf club companies that had already purchased a “huge” order to sell in Beirut. The man on the phone started yelling at Spicer the moment she picked up. He needed more, he said, because he had sold all the headcovers to someone on his flight who offered twice as much as what he paid. Sorry, Spicer said. He had to go to the back of the line.

Spicer’s business grew steadily, both domestically and internationally, from 1997 until 2009, when Woods’ private life became public. She stayed consistent with her price. The headcovers sold for $35 at pro shops.

But then Woods’ off-the-course issues coincided with the economy taking a downturn, forcing Spicer to look at the international golf market as a viable option. Fortunately for Spicer, courses all over Europe were eagerly waiting for the headcovers, she said.

The headcover was quite popular abroad, especially in Asia, said Williams, Woods’ former caddie.

“I thought it was great how Frank became popular when Tiger played in Asia, especially Japan,” Williams said. “It was as if Frank was the attraction amongst the younger fans.”

In the years following 2009, Spicer didn’t see the spikes in sales that Woods provided. But her brand was growing thanks to Woods. She now has more than 200 touring pros in the PGA and LPGA tours, and at least three Masters winners by her count, including Woods, Danny Willett and Bubba Watson. Among her other clients are Ernie Els, John Daly, Dustin Johnson, Chez Reavie, Robert Garrigus, Lydia Ko, Cheyenne Woods, Betsy King, Alena Sharp and Brittany Lincicome.

Then Woods began his comeback. Spicer saw sales start to awaken.

More golf clubs were asking to add a few tigers to their orders. Then came this year’s Masters. Every day throughout the tournament, the calls kept coming.

Spicer knew what was about to happen.

She’d been through plenty of Masters before. Every year, whether or not Tiger Woods had won — whether or not Woods had even played — she saw an uptick in sales the weekend the golf world ascended upon Augusta National.

But this year was different. Spicer was prepared.

Woods’ game had been on the rise. He had already won the Tour Championship at the end of last season. The hype surrounding this Masters — he was healthy and playing well — was palpable.

Spicer knew she needed to order more tiger headcovers. A month before this year’s Masters, Spicer met with her finance and strategy teams, and told them she was planning to order “a bunch more tigers.” Everyone else in the room balked. It was a premature idea, they told her.

He’d won just one tournament. What if he got injured? What if he missed the cut? They ran through all the possible scenarios that could face Woods. Her CPA and business adviser tried to talk her out of it. Spicer held her ground. She made “as many as we could possibly sell.”

She was ready.

Then Woods won, Spicer sold out of that batch, and she and her team worked every day for three straight weeks.

Tiger (headcover) Mania was back.

The Monday after the Masters was her birthday and with it came the best present she could’ve asked for: a Woods victory.

“He changed golf,” she said. “More people were golfing. More people were carrying headcovers. They were showing their personality. There were more kids. There were more women. There were more men. Our market expanded, golf expanded.

“All that he did for golf was so great.”

The journey — of Spicer, Tiger and Frank — has taken some incredible turns. For instance, one day early in Woods’ career, Spicer showed up to a fax hanging on her door. It was from Nike, which wanted to start a licensing deal with Spicer for the tiger headcover. Spicer read it about six times. She couldn’t believe what was in front of her.

She readily accepted.

In Oregon, Nike’s golf team, led then by Chris Mike, sat down with their ad agency, Wieden+Kennedy to listen to ideas for an upcoming campaign from Jim Riswold, the firm’s creative director. Among the presentations was one where the tiger headcover is brought to life.

It was the perfect way to work with Woods, Mike said.

“The idea of creating a foil, if you will, for Tiger, because athletes aren’t actors and sometimes asking them to do too much is a recipe for disaster,” Mike said. “We wanted to create something that gave Tiger the opportunity to engage and interact in a comfortable way.”

Nike loved it. Tiger loved it. Spicer loved it.

Frank the Tiger was born.

“It was an easy idea to come up with,” Riswold said. “I mean, this character has been with him as long as anybody in his golf career.”

Riswold said deciding on the name was “easy” because Frank “got straight to the point.” It was Riswold who also gave Frank his snarky personality.

“I had things, like, he was the only one who called Tiger ‘Eldrick’ and would talk s— to him,” Riswold said. “And the only way to get on Frank’s bad side is to call him a sock. ‘I’m not a sock. I’m a golf accessory.'”

Frank reminded Woods of another Riswold creation: Mars Blackmon.

“It was like my version of Mars Blackmon, how Spike [Lee] was able to say something that Michael [Jordan] wasn’t able to say,” Woods said. “[Riswold] gave Frank a voice so Frank could say things that I couldn’t say.”

In all, nine Frank commercials were made in a year. With the help of an animatronic tiger headcover made by the same people who worked on MythBusters, Riswold said, Frank was brought to life. The robot cost Nike about $30,000 to $40,000 and was controlled with a remote by somebody about 15 feet away. All the robotic tiger did was move its mouth and turn. But they led to some funny moments, Mike said.

During filming in Orlando, Florida, Woods talked to robotic Frank as if he were a real person, Mike remembered. Somebody sat just off camera reading back Frank’s lines. The goal was to find someone to voice Frank who was witty and could convey Riswold’s words to give robotic Frank a personality. Riswold said the decision came down to Paul Giamatti, Michael Keaton and Larry David.

David was the front-runner, Riswold said, but all he wanted in return was to play golf with Woods. Riswold remembered Woods’ people rejecting that request.

“That circle was pretty tight around that man,” said Riswold, who putted and hit balls with Woods, which he called more “nerve-wracking” than standing on the first tee of Pebble Beach or at Merion “up against the member’s patio.”

Giamatti was hired for the job.

“Just that voice,” Riswold said. “Plus his dad [A. Bartlett Giamatti] used to be the commissioner of baseball. And he’s funny. I mean, he just nailed it. We didn’t have to do any takes at all.”

Woods still has DVDs of Giamatti’s outtakes “that are bleeped.”

“That’s what makes it hilarious,” Woods said. “It’s like he’s taking his own character, which can be kind of fun.”

The commercials featured some memorable moments and lines that still live on YouTube — and in Spicer’s house — most of which were written by Riswold. In one commercial, Frank is sitting next to Woods at a counter, drinking a cola. Frank says: “You’ve been dinking them out there lately,” a line Spicer and her family still use regularly when someone isn’t doing something they’re supposed to.

At the shoots, Woods couldn’t always keep it together.

“He would expect a response,” Mike said. “And he did an unbelievable job. I remember at the time Tiger sort of suspending the fact that Frank is a robot with wires coming out of the bottom of it and being controlled by somebody, and actually talking to Frank as if he was his buddy.

“And I just remember laughing so hard every time, there are a couple lines in these commercials, which were sort of the funnier lines and just the way that the robot and Tiger engaged and connected was awesome.

“It was really, really funny to see in person.”

Frank has become a part of Woods, something more than a symbol of the golfer. It has become an extension of him, his brand and his world.

“It was always kind of cool,” Riswold said. “You knew you had something.

“I made some people smile.”

So, what would Frank say to Woods now, after winning the Masters and completing his comeback?

“It’s about time,” Riswold said. “It’s about time hot shot.”

ESPN.com’s Michael Collins and Bob Harig contributed to this report.





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