There is nothing new except what has been forgotten, an old French proverb noted with uncanny precision, not unlike that exemplified by Tiger Woods with five-footers to win. Speaking of Tiger …
Coming on May 24, The Match: Champions for Charity will have Woods and Peyton Manning competing against the team of Phil Mickelson and Tom Brady at Medalist Golf Club in Hobe Sound, Fla. Coming sooner, on May 17, is the TaylorMade Driving Relief event, with Rickie Fowler and Matthew Wolff facing Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson in a team skins game at Seminole Golf Club in nearby Juno Beach.
Suddenly, challenge matches are in vogue—to fill a void on the golf schedule during the COVID-19 pandemic and to generate charity funds in a time of need. Last Thursday, organizers of The Match said the exhibition will bring in more than $10 million for coronavirus relief programs. The Driving Relief event is expected to raise more than $4 million for similar COVID-19 efforts, the American Nurses Foundation and the CDC Foundation.
More accurately, challenge matches are in vogue again. They are not new. In fact, they are old, but how old? Well, when doing an archeological dig for golf history, best to start by digging in the auld sod. Scotland.
Here we find that in 1843, Allan Robertson of St. Andrews played another Scot, Willie Dunn, in a renowned challenge match, 20 rounds in 10 days on the Old Course at St. Andrews. Robertson, ahead by two rounds with one to play, was declared the winner.
It was not the first challenge match, but given Robertson’s place in golf history—the best player of his era, a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame and by some accounts the first golf professional—it’s a good place to begin.
“Professional matches, first reported in St Andrews in the 1830s, were common by the 1840s,” the British Golf Museum website says. “The stakes, which were often high, were put up by backers, rather than the players.”
At the time, these matches were the only way professionals could make money actually playing the game, though perhaps earning less than punters in the galleries holding winning hands.
“Challenge matches are the life of golf,” Scottish professional Andrew Kirkcaldy wrote in his biography, “Fifty Years of Golf: My Memories,” published in 1927. “I wouldn’t give a button for an exhibition game. Man against man, and pocket against pocket, in deadly earnest is the thing.
“These challenge matches are real tests of golf. There are far too many exhibition matches nowadays for the top notchers. The rank and file of the professionals do not get a fair number of chances. There’s many a young player today who might now and again beat a champion and do himself some good.”
One of the most memorable challenge matches of the era was a three-rounder, 20 holes each, that Robertson and Old Tom Morris played against brothers Willie and Tom Dunn. At stake was £400, an enormous sum in those days. The match was tied going into the third round, when Robertson and Morris overcame a four-hole deficit with eight to play, winning six straight holes to prevail.
The Scots naturally exported the challenge match to the United States. Once there, these events became grand spectacles that could be used not just to help the players profit but work as fundraisers for worthwhile causes. When the U.S. became involved in World War I, Bobby Jones had just turned 15, too young to serve. Instead, he was enlisted to participate in Red Cross challenge matches to raise money for the war effort.
Jones often was joined by fellow Atlanta teens Alexa Stirling and Perry Adair, as well as Chicagoan Elaine Rosenthal, who was in her early 20s. They became known as the Dixie Kids and toured the country playing exhibitions, raising $150,000 in the process.
Post-war, in 1926, Jones played professional Walter Hagen in a match billed as “The Battle of the Century.” It was a 72-hole affair that Hagen won decidedly, 11 and 10.
When World War II began, golf, notwithstanding its reputation as an elitist sport that many thought should be avoided, stepped up substantially in aiding the war effort, urged on by those like Herb Graffis, an esteemed golf writer who later was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. “Golf, to deserve its right to boast of itself as being a gentleman’s game,” Graffis wrote in Golfing magazine, “isn’t to be played these days unless it’s played for somebody else, the soldiers, sailors and marines that we who are not in uniform must back up in our fullest, fittest way.”
So it did with the return of challenge matches that raised vast amounts of money for U.S. defense bonds and war relief, and featured any combination of stars of stage, screen and golf course.
Ed Dudley, president of the PGA, and Fred Corcoran, its tournament bureau manager and a promoter extraordinaire, enlisted Bing Crosby and Bob Hope to play a series of exhibition matches with professionals, the first of which included Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson at Brook Hollow Golf Club in Dallas.
“Dallas’ most glamorous golf show of all time,” the Dallas Morning News called it.
The next day, Crosby paired with friend Jimmy Demaret in a match against Hope and Nelson at Brae Burn Country Club in Houston. It attracted the largest crowd in Texas golf history, larger even than the U.S. Open played at Colonial Country Club in 1941.
Lesser lights also did their part. Pros Wiffy Cox and Joe Turnesa played a match against Willie Klein and Jack Mallon at Rockville Country Club on Long Island and raised enough money to ship a million cigarettes to servicemen overseas.
In 1943, the PGA Tour went on hiatus and a large swath of its players enlisted in the military. Nelson, however, was classified 4-F because of a mild form of hemophilia, so he was unable to serve in uniform. Instead he traveled the country, often with Jug McSpaden, playing matches on behalf of the war effort. Nelson had played 35 exhibition matches by the end of February 1943.
One of the most famous challenge matches, worthy of an entire book by noted author Mark Frost titled, simply, “The Match,” occurred at Cypress Point in 1956. It was suggested by Eddie Lowery, a successful car dealer in the San Francisco Bay area (who, as a boy, was on the bag when amateur Francis Ouimet’s famously won the 1913 U.S. Open at Brookline). Lowery boasted he had two amateurs working for him who could beat any two players, professionals included, in a best-ball match.
So it was that Ben Hogan and Nelson agreed to play the amateurs, Ken Venturi and Harvie Ward. The scores: Hogan 63, Venturi 65, and Nelson and Ward 67s. Reportedly, all bets were forgiven in the wake of astounding and memorable golf.
Television soon recognized an opportunity, in the interest of ratings, to spotlight some of the game’s elite by staging series of matches. The professionals also recognized an opportunity, to bolster their bottom lines, transitioning challenge matches back away from philanthropy and into a commercial enterprise. In 1961, “Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf” debuted with a match between Billy Casper and Mario Gonzalez in Rio de Janeiro. The show ran through 1970 and returned in 1994 for another 10-year run.
Meanwhile, the era of the Big Three—Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player—was evolving and the threesome latched onto the growing influence of television with a made-for-TV series, “Big Three Golf,” a series of matches played in the U.S., Scotland and Japan. In the 1980s, challenge matches morphed into The Skins Game, the high-stakes four-player duel becoming a Thanksgiving weekend staple for golf fans until the 2008.
When the Tiger era began, Woods was too dominant to be part of a triumvirate. Instead, he took on several different challengers in a series of individual and two-man team matches on Monday nights from 1999 through 2005—the Showdown at Sherwood, the Battle at Bighorn, and the Battle at the Bridges. They aired on ABC television, though the ratings steadily declined each year after the second event. In 2012, it returned once more with a Woods-Rory McIlroy match, the Duel at Lake Jinsha in China.
The concept was resurrected again in 2018. On the day after Thanksgiving, Woods played Phil Mickelson in “The Match,” a pay-per-view event that played to tepid reviews and is unlikely to have a book written about it.
Last year, it was the MGM Resorts The Challenge: Japan Skins, with Woods, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and Hideki Matsuyama competing for $350,000 staged by GOLFTV.
These latest Challenge matches come full circle of sorts, with charities being the big beneficiary while also sating, for the moment, an audience starved for fresh action. However these matches play out, they will face a high bar to match the colorful commentary Kirkcaldy provided in recounting one match in his book.
“Ben Sayers and I played a 72-hole match at Sunningdale and Walton Heath,” he wrote. “Lord Riddell, as he is now, offered a prize of £50. The English people seemed to find in us a great diversion, giving us credit for humor we were not aware of.
“For instance, when my ball was going straight to a hole at Sunningdale, Ben made a move as if he would like to stop it. I took him by the collar and said, loud enough for the crowd to hear, ‘Ye wud hae kiekit it oot, wud ye?’”