Same Time New Place Lipping Out No. 25

Same Time, New Place

Will Tiger and Rory’s prime-time franchise work? History provides the best view

“To be very frank,” Mike Tirico said as Tiger Woods, Annika Sorenstam, David Duval and Karrie Webb, winners of five of the last six major championships on the PGA and LPGA tours, trudged to the 11th green, “the golf has not been very good.” 

In real time and in ABC boardrooms afterward, 2001’s “Battle at Bighorn” primetime golf event appeared to be a failure. The golf was stilted and ugly for any tour pro, let alone the generational talents on display, and, to make matters worse, the match went to extra holes and blew past its scheduled TV window by 82 long minutes. “That scene had everything but the clown’s mouth,” co-host Al Michaels deadpanned after Sorenstam badly missed a putt on No. 14. 

Is the Tomorrow Golf League (TGL) headed for the same fate? Golf’s latest foray into the most coveted slot in network programming—this time with teams of three PGA Tour stars playing in front of a live studio audience on what the league is hailing as a “custom-built arena that will combine a data-rich virtual course with a state-of-the-art short game complex”—is unlike anything seen before at this level. And people have their doubts. 

“What the hell is TGL?” a friend recently asked me. “Who’s going to watch that?” That’s probably what ABC executives  said after the “Battle at Bighorn.” It was the third year of the network’s Monday Night Golf series and viewership was dropping. The first, 1999’s match between Woods and Sergio García, finished only behind the Masters in terms of golf ratings that year. But the series never found similar success and was discontinued after 2005’s event, where Phil Mickelson and Retief Goosen whipped Woods and John Daly, 5&3. 

Andy Tupman Masters 4 Tiger Woods
Regardless of venue or showtime, Tiger draws a crowd. Photo: Andy Tupman

But here’s the dirty secret about primetime golf: People do watch it. That 2001 bomb of a match yielded a 6.1 Nielsen rating, something executives today would do truly awful things for. (Ty Votaw, the LPGA commissioner at the time, was one of the few to see the silver lining: “It’s a 6.1 rating and 8 million people watched, which is a positive, and out of that, we probably made some new fans,” he said afterward. “It’s a better rating than the men’s British Open.”) 

Beyond ratings, history has proven that these exhibitions have had a positive impact on the game. “There have been some important, long-term benefits that have come out of these made-for-TV matches,” Connor Lewis, the man behind the Society of Golf Historians, tells me. “Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf alone has been incredible for the game.” 

Debuting in 1961 with Billy Casper vs. Mário Gonzalez at the Gávea Country Club in Brazil, Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf has become a vital piece of golf history. It remains one of the best avenues for swing technicians to get clean looks at historically good moves, from Ben Hogan to Mickey Wright to Sam Snead. For architecture aficionados, the show has become a kind of urtext for private clubs like Pine Valley and rarely seen international courses like Kasumigaseki Country Club in Japan. It’s also a time capsule for how courses like St. Andrews, Royal Melbourne and PGA National looked back then compared to today. 

“For decades, that [1962] match between Gene Littler and Byron Nelson at Pine Valley was the only way you could see one of the greatest golf courses in the world,” Lewis says. 

Beyond all of that, there was kitschy fun. Only this show was brave enough to air Dave Ragan vs. Celestino Tugot at Wack Wack Golf & Country Club in the Philippines. It also experimented with formats, introducing three-way matches with a 1969 event between future World Golf Hall of Famers Sandra Haynie, Carol Mann and Kathy Whitworth. The show was always progressive when it came to the LPGA, with a 1964 match between Mickey Wright and Brigitte Varangot the first of many times it provided female stars the same stage as the men. 

The first incarnation of Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf ended in 1970, finishing its run as one of golf ’s most beloved franchises. Which, as any Marvel or Star Wars fan knows, meant it was coming back. The show resurfaced in 1994 with a match between 64-year-old Arnold Palmer and 54-year-old Jack Nicklaus on Pinehurst No. 2. Larry Dorman of The New York Times wrote a hole-by-hole report that rivaled major-championship stories: “When Palmer split the middle with his tee shot at the second, and Nicklaus pulled his drive left into the rough, he fixed Nicklaus with the old imperious gaze, and even hiked his trousers a little.” 

That coverage speaks to the magic that will always keep made-for-TV golf alive: People want to see the stars. Even looking at the list of matches now gives me an urge to drop everything and scour the internet for them. From the new version of the show alone, which ran from 1994 to 2003, we have Mickelson vs. García in 2001. Sorenstam vs. Dottie Pepper at Kiawah in 1996. How about Greg Norman vs. Nick Price at Medalist? Paul Azinger and Seve Ballesteros had a notoriously frosty relationship from their Ryder Cup wars, yet there they were at St. Andrews for a 1995 match. 

Will Rory McIlroy squaring off with Jon Rahm on a digital screen produce the same romance? That is the challenge for TGL, which launches in 2024. We’re a long way off from history deciding which trails, if any, this ambitious show will blaze. 

But I’m guessing there was a time when pitting two golfers against each other on a course by themselves also sounded outrageous. And some of TGL’s main ingredients will appear quite familiar to golf’s couch-potato connoisseurs: stars like Woods, McIlroy, Rahm, Justin Thomas and Max Homa, playing in prime time, on—you guessed it—Monday nights. 

So who the hell will watch TGL? Only time will tell. But my friend and I did agree that “The Match” ain’t it. The further we can get from Tom Brady and Peyton Manning playing poorly and talking televised trash on any golf course, the better.