CHIBA, Japan – If you like your stars homogenized and your competitions of the cookie-cutter variety, this match wasn’t for you.
This was very much hit-and-giggle, a light diversion from the norm that will not be embraced by those whose dial is set to 72 holes of stroke play. But for those who enjoy the occasional break from repetition, it was a delightful detour.
For those with realistic expectations and a sense of humor, golf under the lights in October was as entertaining as it was contrived. Maybe millionaires playing for a few hundred-thousand isn’t must-see TV, but if you looked beyond the inherent flaws of an unofficial event, the product was entertaining and that was what silly season golf was always about.
The skins-game concept ended in 2008 following a series of lackluster events. For many, the format had grown stale and the Skins Game, which began in 1986, had gotten lost in a post-Tour Championship collection of unofficial stops.
This remake of the original was supposed to be different. This was a Tiger Woods friends-and-family plan complete with microphones and some competitive curves.
From the outset, the banter between Woods, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and Hideki Matsuyama was intriguing.
“That’s good,” Jason Day said with a smile as Tiger Woods hacked his way up the par-4 second hole. “Thanks,” the 43-year-old responded with a frown.
Two holes later, Woods’ approach sailed hopelessly wide of both flags at the par-4 fourth hole. Yes, both flags on the hole with two greens and two hole locations that were each in play.
“I hit in between the greens, so it looked kind of like I didn't know what I was doing, but then went to the second green to hit my chip shot and made a putt; it almost stole the hole, which would have been awesome,” Woods said.
It was an unsightly theme early in the match with none of the marquee foursome playing their best. Through five holes, four shots had found a water hazard, including three at the par-3 fifth hole which was won by Woods with par.
And not every idea was a winner. Having a group of rugby players join in on the par-3 seventh hole probably sounded like a good idea in a country currently caught up in Rugby World Cup fervor, but the additions did nothing to improve pace of play or the on-demand product.
But eventually the golf, if not the sideshow attractions, improved.
The highlight of the day may have come at the par-5 13th hole which each player had to tackle with just a single club. Day went with a 6-iron and hit the shot of the day from a green-side bunker for a tap-in par.
“I haven't hit a bunker shot with a 6-iron for probably about eight years,” Day said. “I was just hoping that one of the other guys was going to make par. Then, all of a sudden, it came out pretty good, so I was very pleased with it and I ended up having to hole that putt.”
That the match came down to the last putt on the last green is a testament to a format that assured each of the four had a chance to win it all at No. 18.
But more than the quality of golf – which at times was impressive, particularly for Woods, who was playing his first competitive round since having knee surgery in August – it was a rare chance to get a glimpse into those interactions within the rope line that go largely unseen.
The closest mainstay we’ve had to this kind of give-and-take in recent years is the Hero World Challenge, but even there the lure of world ranking points often keeps players from completely coming out of their competitive cocoons.
“I think the banter back and forth, the needling, the jabbing, it was all good fun,” Woods said. “I hope we were entertaining everyone and everyone who's watching had a good time.”
Not everyone would have been entertained. For some, this was far too frivolous to be considered a serious competition and that’s fair. For those fans, there are plenty of stone-faced players grinding along at traditional events. But Monday’s match was different.
This was a chance for a few stars to prove that golf isn’t a collection of mindless robots going through the motions and that the sport can be just as entertaining with a smile or a scowl. No, Monday’s match wasn’t for everyone but for those who gave it a chance, it was worth the effort.