Most sports have entertaining sideshows that aren’t to be confused with the main event, no matter how much Barnum & Bailey-style bluster attends it. All-star games, home run derbies and the like are for histrionics, not history. The same goes for golf’s Skins games.
It’s been 36 years since the Skins Game was first played and about 30 years since it lost its novelty, though only a decade since it was finally mothballed. Money mattered back then, even to Jack Nicklaus, who was ecstatic once after making a putt worth $240,000 (almost $100,000 more than he got for winning the ’86 Masters). Given the sums now commonplace in golf — 112 players earned over $1 million before bonuses last season on the PGA Tour — Skins games need a raison d’etre beyond testing the old ‘putt for dough’ theory, especially if the cash at stake won’t even gas the competitors jets or make caddies sweat their percentage.
So it is with “The Challenge: Japan Skins,” the Oct. 21 match featuring Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Hideki Matsuyama and Jason Day (the latter two invited to juice local interest and ensure the broadcast won’t be over too quickly). The purse of $350,000 is less than last place paid at the Tour Championship, but what does the purse really matter in a world of appearance fees and partner brand extensions?
The Challenge was touted in coordinated social media posts and press releases that exhibited all the spontaneity of a North Korean military parade. “There has always been some friendly banter between us, and that will continue until we get to the first tee,” Woods said with the kind of passion money can’t buy.
“There are so many fun elements to The Challenge that will have me wanting to take home that title,” McIlroy pitched in gamely.
In fairness, the bar is low for this year’s “The Challenge” to outperform last year’s “The Match,” when Woods and Phil Mickelson asked viewers to pay $20 for awkward trash talking that was less amusing than what you’d hear from a couple of over-served middle managers jostling on a crowded commuter train home. With enough wrinkles and curveballs thrown in, perhaps “The Challenge” will entertain those of us who will consume just about any golf programming.
But the revival of made-for-TV matches speaks to a broader truth about golf: our modern day legends only ever go head-to-head in manufactured situations, not when it actually matters.
McIlroy and Brooks Koepka have circled each other this year and one senses it could blossom into a genuine rivalry. Not yet, though. Rivalries are born on global stages like Augusta National or Pebble Beach, not the community theater equivalents of TPC Southwind and East Lake, where they scuffled last summer. For now our rivalries exist only in a Truman’s World bubble, where action is dictated as much by the producers as by the players.
None of this is new. For the entire duration of Tiger’s career we’ve relied on make-believe rivals. It started 20 years ago with the “Showdown at Sherwood” against David Duval. A year later it was the “Battle at Bighorn” with Sergio Garcia. Eventually TV had to make it a team event and add real rivals to maintain credibility: first Annika Sorenstam and Karrie Webb, then Nicklaus and Lee Trevino. All the while, Tiger’s “rival” remained as interchangeable as a Fox News Channel host, playing a lucrative role for which they couldn’t possibly be taken seriously.
Woods is now past the stage where he’s likely to become part of any rivalry. Rory might, but not with Tiger. The two have jostled on Sunday in a major championship just once — the ’18 Open Championship at Carnoustie — and neither walked off with the trophy.
If we’re fortunate, “The Challenge” will have enough quirks and twists to distract us from the state of the world. If nothing else, it will help us pass the time — slowly, given Day’s presence — while we wait for a couple of guys to regularly go head-to-head with something other than brand marketing at stake, in tournaments that matter more than money ever could.