It was a quick exit. The normal processions wandering about an open public road were interrupted by a Mercedes pulling up onto the sidewalk of Golf Place, which runs on the opposite side of the R&A clubhouse from the most famous golf course in the world. A path cleared and suddenly Tiger Woods appeared, right there in what had just been a typical sidewalk scene in town, jumping into the car with his girlfriend. The “Champions Challenge” had ended just minutes ago a hundred or so yards away, and Tiger was bolting while the other competitors slowly worked their way out of the field on the other side of the clubhouse, taking pictures and conversing as things wound down.
The quick exit was the opposite of the entrance. Tiger did not show up for only the four-hole ceremony. He arrived on the putting green adjacent to the first tee just before 4 p.m., almost an hour before his tee time. He chatted up the various champions, pros, and dignitaries that made their way onto the relatively compact green next to the first tee. He rolled a few putts, bothered Rory McIlroy, cracked some jokes, indulged a few Nick Faldo approaches, and often stopped cold to watch, laugh at, and take in the groups ahead both teeing off the first tee and finishing up on the 18th green. It was nearly an hour on the putting green but the putting felt almost incidental to being out there for that duration to hang and watch.
Tiger may have shown up out of a sense of obligation, but he didn’t blow it off with a quick walk-up and rapid escape. He seemed happy enough to be there, and have the opportunity to BS with other champions and monuments of the game at its home. If nothing else, this is the beauty of the pomp and circumstance of some of these ceremonial mileposts, like this Champions Challenge put on when the Open visits St. Andrews, the Champions Dinners at various majors, or the Masters opening tee shot. The treacle may turn you off, which is not an uncommon reaction. But these events can do this: they have the very simple effect of putting a group of legends in the same place at the same time, and often in public view. It would not happen otherwise and is substantial enough to appreciate the existence of these events, especially as the legends grow older and older.
The two greatest to ever play. @TigerWoods @jacknicklaus @TheOpen pic.twitter.com/qYv8NgCTda
— Geoff Shackelford (@GeoffShac) July 11, 2022
Given the setting, the Champions Challenge feels especially poignant, even for the cold-hearted cynics. The scores and shots have no significance so much as the gathering at this place. It got to Arnold Palmer in his last visit to the Open at St. Andrews.
Obviously, I don’t remember who won that 2015 Champions Challenge or anything else about it really, but it yielded that powerful moment, its own piece of history that’s hard to forget. Without being sentimental, it’s the rare occasion that gets these people to this historic stage, an impact that matters itself given the various ages of the participants.
Also without being sentimental, golf remains one of the rare games that can be played together by such a range of people. The groups went out in four with old and young men’s champions, old and young women’s champions, adaptive golfers, and amateur champions, among others. A ceremonial game often does not happen in other sports with players ranging from their 80s to current No. 2 in the world playing together.
There are foursomes out there everywhere with that mix of ages and variety. You know that walking-off-the-first-tee feeling? You’re safely away, relieved by that and excited about the golf ahead and maybe the present company. Padraig Harrington and Catriona Matthew had that exact buoyancy as they matched strides walking out from the first tee engaged in conversation. It looked almost relatable and definitely familiar. It could have been a scene and feeling from any course, except everyone in this ceremonial event is or once was among the very best in the world, from the adaptive players to Tiger.
From the putting “warm-up” on, Woods seemed to understand the value of being there. There’s a real competition coming in a couple days, but this event was not entirely pointless. Where Augusta has its lush green, spring colors, and birdsong, the Old Course has its fiery brown, gray sky, and seagull song. It was hot and sunny in St. Andrews on Monday morning, but by the time Tiger’s group with Georgia Hall, Lee Trevino, and Rory McIlroy came to tee off last in the event, all those elements, with a little wind to match the gray sky, had materialized. The shots would not matter, but the gathering and scene did.