Even though Tiger Woods spent most of his U.S. Open Sunday hitting out of thick rough and watching his ball roll off the slippery greens at Shinnecock Hills, his image still effectively flashed across the screen in commercial after commercial. The world's No. 1 golfer may be losing his grip on the top position, but he remains one of the most marketable athletes in the world.

Of course, the beneficiary of all of this brand identification and loyalty is Nike (NYSE:NKE). The company has parlayed its "discovery" of Woods into a golfing empire that encompasses everything from golf shoes, clubs, and balls to a wide assortment of apparel. The sporting goods behemoth followed its Michael Jordan template for leveraging its relationship with a top athlete (although there have been a few rough spots lately).

Nike's competitors, such as Callaway Golf (NYSE:ELY) and TaylorMade, have struggled at times to keep up with them. Callaway, in particular, has had more trouble than Tiger on Shinnecock's 10th hole (par, bogey, double bogey, bogey).

There is so much competition in the golf equipment market that it can often be confusing when you're shopping for clubs that can help you hit the ball straighter and longer. I don't have that problem; I mean, the shopping for clubs -- not the straight and long issue. At 6 and 1/2 feet tall, my options to use normal length clubs are limited.

Therefore, I ordered knock-off clubs that were an inch-and-a-half longer and about 50% less expensive than the first-line clubs. These clones of their more expensive name-brand brethren are a pleasure to use, and the manufacturers of these types of clubs have eaten into the profits of the Nikes and the Callaways of the golfing world. They've also hurt retail outlets like Sports Authority (NYSE:TSA), Dick's Sports Goods (NYSE:DKS), and many overpriced golf pro shops. Companies like Nike will have to keep relying on stars like Woods to maintain their dominance and keep the cheaper competition away.

Even though Tiger Woods has been out of contention the last five major golf championships, his branding power continues to be unmatched by any athlete in the sports world. But then Michael Jordan's retired, and he's still pushing unmatched levels of merchandise, so fans are likely to stick with Tiger.

Investors like dominance and a competitive advantage as much as sports fans. Nike, which is trading at 18 times next year's earnings of $3.95 per share, is still quite attractive versus a 20% EPS growth rate over the next few years.

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Fool contributor Phil Wohl spent more than 12 years on Wall Street and now concentrates his writing on more fictional characters. He has no stake in any firm mentioned above.