Tiger Woods vs. Rory McIlroy: Challenge Matches Are Still Alive and Well in 2012

Michael FitzpatrickFeatured ColumnistOctober 29, 2012

ZHENGZHOU, CHINA - OCTOBER 29:  Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland(L) and Tiger Woods of USA walk together during the Duel of Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy at Jinsha Lake Golf Club on October 29, 2012 in Zhengzhou, China.  (Photo by Hong Wu/Getty Images)
Hong Wu/Getty Images

Almost 160 years ago, the likes of Old Tom Morris, Young Tom Morris and Willie Park Sr. used to earn virtually all of their money through “challenge” or money matches set up by wealthy individuals looking for a bit of entertainment while holidaying along the Scottish Coast.

And 80 years ago, the likes of Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen, Bobby Jones, Sam Snead, etc. used to travel the world over to participate in highly lucrative money matches. Players like Hagen and Sarazen essentially made their living through these international money matches while the likes of Snead, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, etc. used these matches to pad their bank accounts with guaranteed earnings during the PGA Tour’s offseason.

Fast forward to the year 2012, and little has changed in terms of money matches organized by incredibly wealthy individuals.

Sure, corporations, real estate developers and powerful sports and entertainment companies have now replaced wealthy Dukes in terms of those providing the financial backing for these challenge matches.

Players now swoop into town on their private jets, collect a cool $3 million for showing up to a money match and then hightail it out of town before the sun has even set. That is a far cry from the days of Hagen and Sarazen taking weeks just to reach some of the remote locations of their matches.   

Television networks, commercial rights, lawyers, managers, publicists, etc. all play major roles in these modern day challenge matches as well.

But, the general principle behind these matches is the same today as it was 160 years ago. If you shell out enough money, you can more or less create any professional golfing competition you want.

It took a reported $3 million from a wealthy Chinese real estate magnate to make it happen, but yesterday the top two players in the world faced off in an 18-hole challenge match in Zhengzhou, China.

And not only did Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy show up for this made for TV pay-per-view match, but they also agreed to be wired for sound throughout the entire match. Neither player has ever agreed to be wired for sound during a PGA Tour or European Tour event in the past.

So, it just goes to show what $3 million in guaranteed money (a reported $2 million for Woods and $1 million for McIlroy) can get you.

More than 3,000 fans followed the match without the restraints of any gallery ropes. Chinese military personnel were used to separate the gallery from the players when the crowd got to close to the action. 

It was a scene reminiscent of the “Vardon Invasion” in 1900 where scores of eager fans gathered at golf courses throughout America as Harry Vardon took part in a series of exhibition matches leading up to the 1900 U.S. Open, which he won by two strokes over J.H. Taylor.   

For event organizers, Woods and McIlroy would have been worth every penny as the quality of golf, showmanship and drama rivaled that of a heavyweight title fight.

McIlroy came out swinging with a birdie at the first and never relinquished his lead to Woods throughout the day, although Woods had several chances to catch McIlroy with mid-range putts on the back-nine but couldn’t convert and wound up closing with a 68 to McIlroy’s 67.

“We had a great match,” Woods said via GolfChannel.com, after the round. “It was a lot of fun, and I think everyone here enjoyed it. It’d be fun if we can do something like this again.”

Well, it is a virtual certainty that something like this will happen again in the near future. Challenge matches or “money grabs” as they are affectionately known as today have been around for 160 years, and as long as there are wealthy golf fans willing to shell out whatever it takes to organize these events, challenge matches will continue to thrive in every corner of the world for the foreseeable future.

So much has changed within the world of professional golf since the 1860s, yet when it truly comes down to the nuts and bolts of the professional game, not much has really changed since the days of Old Tom Morris and Willie Park Sr. battling it out in challenge matches along the Scottish links in order to earn a living while entertaining their match organizers, a.k.a. their cash cows. 

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