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Tour Confidential: Did the Tiger Woods-led Japan Skins live up to the hype?

October 21, 2019

Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors as they break down the hottest topics in the sport, and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com. This week we discuss The Challenge: Japan Skins, Tiger Woods’ 2019-20 season debut at the Zozo Championship, the relationship between Brooks Koepka and Rory McIlroy and more.

1. While the majority of the U.S. was either sleeping or getting ready to call it a night, the much-hyped Japan Skins featuring Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Hideki Matsuyama aired on Golf Channel beginning at 11 p.m. ET. (If you missed any of the action you can catch up here.) So what did you think? Did the event live up to the hype? What highlights/lowlights stuck out?

Sean Zak, senior editor (@sean_zak): It was going to be difficult to live up to the hype, but I was genuinely entertained. This was much better than The Match, and probably always was going to be. The course was a highlight as we watched elite pros play shots for the first time. Tiger was a lowlight on the first four holes (rust, perhaps) and then started flagging it. Rory wilted after putting on a ball-striking display, and Day’s putter reigned supreme. The only lowlight was the man unmentioned thus far. Hideki really never got it going.

Luke Kerr-Dineen, instruction editor (@LukeKerrDineen): Unlike intrepid golf journalist Sean Zak, I did not stay up to watch this. I was fast asleep. The highlights and delightful Drop Zone podcast about it were fun to wake up to, though, and it certainly seems this is a more promising format than The Match. Did it live up to the hype? It’s hard for us to say, because this event wasn’t for us. You don’t broadcast a live event through the night if you want to penetrate the U.S. market. This was an international play aimed at Asia specifically, and from that perspective, it seems quite successful.

Dylan Dethier, senior writer (@dylan_dethier): I think it fell short of the hype but still exceeded expectations, if that makes sense (if it doesn’t, that’s because I’ve been awake for far too long). The skins game started slow, but once the players eased into the format they hit plenty of great shots and got into some compelling moments, too (not just canned “needling”). It can be easy in promos to make it seem like a skins game is a heavyweight bout when it’s really just a slightly more fun version of golf.

Michael Bamberger, senior writerIt looked like a practice round on a course that would never be the site for a PGA Tour event, here in the lower 48. I should say I fell asleep before the gents reached the fourth green. It was just guys playing golf and spreading good cheer. They weren’t raising money for war bonds, but it was still a good time and at times a good cause. What’s not to like?

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer (@AlanShipnuck): I didn’t make it to the back nine. The golf was sloppy, the course uninspired, the banter forced and cheesy, the money laughably small. But other than that…

Josh Sens, contributor (@JoshSens): Well, that was one weird show. The production itself was almost local cable access quality — you could hear the players talking and then you couldn’t; the shot tracer worked and then it didn’t; the images glitched and jumped then steadied. It was like the Skins game version of Between Two Ferns. In that way it was almost endearingly bad. I kind of liked how unslick it was. Full disclosure: I nodded off after the first nine. In that time the golf itself was a long way from spectacular and the conversations the mics did pick up were a long way from interesting. But there were some high points, including a goofy moment where each guy got paired with a rugby legend and they played a two-man scramble. The rugby players themselves seemed genuinely thrilled to be there and there was a funny scene when Matsuyama drained a long putt and his hulking partner jumped into his arms in celebration. Matsuyama caught him and it looked like he might slip a disc. Bottom line: It was strange and pretty awful but it also sort of worked.

Tiger Woods rallied into contention but Jason Day was the champion at the Japan Skins Challenge.
Tiger Woods rallied into contention but Jason Day was the champion at the Japan Skins Challenge.
Getty Images

2. Was the four-player format more compelling than the mano-a-mano model we watched with Tiger vs. Phil last November?

Zak: Undoubtedly. I think the PGA Tour, which proudly counts its depth as an asset, needs to do this every 10 months with a cycling cast, and in a new, exotic location. Perhaps South Africa could be next? I would sign up for a quartet of Ernie Els, Adam Scott, Jordan Spieth and Jon Rahm. I know that wouldn’t sell quite as well without McIlroy or the Big Cat, but there seems to be a very deep group that would compel me to watch.

Kerr-Dineen: There’s something so thrilling about a me vs. you, mano-a-mano match up. It’s a simple concept which makes it easy to hype up. It’s why we boxing tends to transcend into the national consciousness around its biggest fights. But sadly, I just can’t see it working for golf. The possibility is too high that one of the two players simply won’t show up on the day. A skins match is something golfers know and play themselves, and it’s probably the best option for events like these in the future.

Dethier: Yeah, this was better. I wasn’t particularly swayed by the piles of cash awaiting Phil and Tiger, and having more players to provide compelling moments (and to avoid only two people interacting) was much less awkward. In golf, two is generally too few.

Bamberger: Four did make it seem like a home game. Two is the best when the stakes are really high–Ryder Cup, U.S. Am, club championship. But if it’s just two rich guys playing to become richer yet, it leaves one cold and having four makes it more about the camaraderie.

Shipnuck: This should be proof that meaningless exhibition golf doesn’t work no matter how many players are involved.

Sens: It was much better but that’s a low standard. A static snowstorm on your TV screen would have been more interesting than that Phil/Tiger charade.

3. Speaking of Tiger, he’s in the field for this week’s Zozo Championship, his first start since the BMW Championship and an arthroscopic procedure to repair minor cartilage damage in his left knee at the end of August. What should we expect from Tiger, and how much do you think his play this week will influence his decision to make himself a playing captain at the Presidents Cup?

Shipnuck: Expectations are low but the stakes are high – this is Tiger’s audition for himself and would-be teammates to see if he’s ready for the Prez Cup. It’s okay if he’s rusty with the scoring clubs but he needs to look relatively spry and have some speed. Tiger’s old-man creakiness helped torpedo the last U.S. Ryder Cup team; we don’t need a sequel at Royal Melbourne.

Bamberger: This is the week that can break the 2019 Presidents Cup. If Tiger plays really poorly, he can’t defend picking himself. And it’s a much better event if he’s the playing captain. He hasn’t played well after long layoffs all year. But he rises to occasions as few others have, ever. I think he’ll play well enough. There’s only, what, 78 in the field, and no cut? He’ll beat 50 guys anyway.

Dethier: One subplot from Monday’s skins game is that this course can stand up to some seriously good players. Jason Day was hitting a 3-wood into a par 4! If Woods can string together four reasonably good rounds (and I expect him to) he’ll cement playing-captain status.

Sens: I expect a “getting-in-his-reps” kind of performance — solid if unspectacular by Tiger standards. But I don’t think that makes or breaks the Presidents Cup. What comes close to breaking it — or at least pushing it further toward irrelevance — is another American rout. An International win would be a very good thing for this event.

Zak: Based on how shaky he was to start the Skins, I’d expect some more rust. I don’t think he finishes in the top 20 this week. He’s competing against a lot of folks who have been playing on Tour the last few weeks. That’s worth something. 

Kerr-Dineen: Expect what we usually see from Tiger upon his return: Rust, discomfort, and a finish underwhelming. In his post-peak years, Tiger’s form really does seem dependent on getting enough prerequisite tournament ‘reps.’

4. World No. 1 Brooks Koepka withdrew from the CJ Cup after 36 holes when he slipped on wet concrete and reaggravated a previous injury to his left knee. While Koepka said he’ll head back to the States for further tests, he made his biggest news of the week a few days earlier, when he said he doesn’t believe there is a rivalry between him and World No. 2 Rory McIlroy. “I’ve been out here for, what, five years. Rory hasn’t won a major since I’ve been on the PGA Tour. So I just don’t view it as a rivalry,” Koepka told the AFP. Is Brooks right? And what’s really going on here? Is there genuine bad blood between these two?

Bamberger: No, I think they like each other. I appreciate what Brandel said, but I just think that’s Brooks being Brooks. No big whoop. Golf’s about scoreboard totals.

Sens: I sense respect. I sense a budding rivalry. I like that Koepka speaks his mind, even if speaking his mind partly involves mind games. It’s good entertainment. Me likey.

Shipnuck: Hey, the scoreboard don’t lie. Brooks has clearly usurped Rory as the game’s alpha. McIlroy has to stop coming up small in the biggest events if he’s going to be a legit challenger to Koepka. They’ve always been friendly but clearly the dynamic is going to change, just as it did with Brooks and DJ. Fine with me – I love the spice.

Zak: Brooks is right and wrong. He is correct with his tallying of wins, but when you beat McIlroy in Memphis and he beats you at the Tour Championship (and for the POY race), yeah, you’ve got a bit of a rivalry budding. But it’s not surprising (and I’m not bothered) that the jock Koepka only wants to talk about big game hunting and not Rory’s win at the Canadian Open. 

Kerr-Dineen: There’s no actual bad blood here, this is just Brooks flexing — the latest continuation of his transformation into one of those jocks you see in American high school movies, who likes to shove kids into lockers. It’s how he gets his motivation and it’s mildly entertaining, so I don’t begrudge him for it. But it’s not really worth taking it seriously.

Dethier: McIlroy was asked about this mid-skins game, and although he brushed off the comments he didn’t, like, totally brush them off. Both are individualists and they seem friendly when they play together, though I doubt they’re getting summer houses together. This is great fun, though.

5. Justin Thomas closed with a 67 to win the CJ Cup on Sunday in South Korea for his 11th career PGA Tour victory. According to The 15th Club’s Justin Ray, Thomas, 26, now has as many wins as Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy did before they turned 27, and one more than Phil Mickelson before he turned 27. Does JT have the game to surpass all of them in terms of career accomplishments?

Bamberger: Phil had a swing and a body designed to last forever. I can’t see Justin Thomas doing the same. But he’s really thrilling to watch, the speed of the swing, back and down, is astounding. That’s not Daly, Nicklaus, Vijay, Snead. Phil. It’s more Nick Price.

Shipnuck: I agree that the modern swing is much more violent, and Thomas’s wrist injury last year is a red flag. But he plays the game with a certain ease that makes me think he’ll have a long and fruitful career. Still, surpassing Phil is a very tall mountain to climb.

Sens: He’s a spectacular talent, and a much better driver of the ball than either Mickelson or Spieth. But surpassing Mickelson’s career accomplishments are going to be a tall order because he’s playing in a different era. Those majors keep getting harder and harder to win.

Zak: Yes, undoubtedly. JT would have more wins, I’d think, if he wasn’t hurt at various points in his young career. We used to think Young Spieth had ALL the shots. JT does, too, and he doesn’t seem to lose them, either. I think he’s primed for an undefeated Presidents Cup … with no sessions off. 

Kerr-Dineen: Certainly. You can’t quibble with his regular season record, but he still has some work to do in majors to be truly considered alongside some of the greats mentioned above. Outside his lone PGA Championship victory, his next best finishes are a T-6 (also in the PGA Championship) and a T-9 at the U.S. Open three years ago. JT has the game, but he needs to better deploy it in majors. 

Dethier: Thomas hits it long, he hits it straight, and he does so relentlessly. Koepka has shown that that’s a good recipe for big-time tournament golf.

6. Tiger Woods announced he’s working on the release of his memoir, Back, which he says will be his definitive story. “There have been books and articles and TV shows about me, most filled with errors, speculative and wrong,” Woods said in a release. If you were Tiger’s ghostwriter, which part of his career/life would you most encourage him to open up about?

Bamberger: What he’s learned. As a player, as a father, as a husband, as a boss, as a son, as someone with addiction issues, as someone who has tried to find a place in the world. If he can somehow share with us what he has learned, and we can figure out a way to apply it to our own lives, the value of it all is incalculable. He’s led a remarkable life. There’s so much for him to take pride in, and so much for him to be bitter about (tabloid spying, for starters). I hope he can go deep, take off all the chains, and write a book for the ages.

Sens: If he can strip away the press conference politeness and other sponsor-friendly speak, it would be interesting to hear him go deep on almost anything, because there’s always been the feeling that he’s held back on almost everything. Any resentment toward his dad for hoisting that “he’s-gonna-change-the-world” expectation on him? What was he thinking/feeling when Billy Payne lectured him about his personal life — and the broader context of that lecture? Tiger has willfully avoided wading into those areas in particular. Let’s hear the good, the bad and the ugly of it all.

Shipnuck: I just hope he’s raw and real. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Dethier: Yeah, some true self-reflection would go a long way here. One example: We’ve heard him talk generally about the rough times, but I wonder: When he allegedly thought he was done with golf forever, what was he thinking of doing? 

Zak: I’d be fascinated to hear Woods discuss his thoughts on race and culture and his place in it all. Do I think I could guess the bland answer? Yes. But he cares about certain things — his foundation will tell you that — and not so much about others. I would like to hear him go deep on what he aligns with, and perhaps what he doesn’t. And to have him explain Cablinasian in modern, more sophisticated terms. 

Kerr-Dineen: His formative years — those countless hours on the range in his youth that forged his identity and made Tiger, Tiger. The pressure, the expectation, the fear of failing in front of the world, the love of the game, the race-based scrutiny amid it all. It was in those years that all the faults and triumphs in his character were seeded, and when he was first plopped into the media fishbowl. Everything since then is merely a result of it.

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