News & Opinion

Woods-Mickelson: It's 1½ centuries old

On Friday of Thanksgiving weekend, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson will tee it up at Shadow Creek in Las Vegas for an exhibition match. The purse, $9 million: new. Shown only on pay-per-view TV: new. No gallery at the course: new. Big-time players in an exhibition: part of the game since the dawn of professional golf.

Exhibitions were a mainstay for professional golfers from the 1850s to the start of the PGA Tour, TV and the injection of big money in a series of scheduled tournaments.

The British Open didn’t start until 1860, and the first U.S. Open was held in 1895. Professional tournaments on a national scale came a little later, with the British Professional Match Play Championship in 1903, and the U.S. PGA Championship in 1916.

Professionals earned their keep by serving as club professionals, giving lessons, repairing clubs and sometimes through greenkeeping responsibilities. Extra money could be earned by playing exhibitions sponsored by golf clubs or individuals of means. In Great Britain, exhibitions took hold after the British Open gained followers, and the winners of the Open were sought after as players to beat.

Three golfers dominated British professional golf in the period from 1894 to the start of World War I in 1914: Harry Vardon, who won six British Open titles during that period, and James Braid and J.H. Taylor, each five-time British Open champions. They became known as the “Great Triumvirate” and played a lot of exhibitions in that 20-year period: Vardon (544), Taylor (529) and Braid (526). None played more than a dozen tournaments annually.

What they earned isn’t precisely known, but it is estimated that Vardon averaged £16.67 per exhibition, and Taylor and Braid only slightly less. At the time, the British pound was worth $4.87, so Vardon was making about $81 per exhibition. He averaged 57 exhibitions per year, so his average annual income from exhibitions was $4,617. Average annual income in Great Britain in 1900 was £42, or $205, so Vardon was doing quite well, but then, he was the top player, the Tiger Woods of his era.

In 1900, A.G. Spalding & Bros. of Chicopee, Mass., manufacturers of golf clubs and balls, decided to bring Vardon to the United States for a year-long series of exhibitions to further interest in the game, and to promote its line of Vardon clubs and the Vardon Flyer golf ball.

Vardon arrived in New York in early February and played matches almost daily. He returned to Great Britain in May to defend his Open title at St. Andrews, finishing second to J.H. Taylor.

Vardon returned to New York in late June and started exhibitions immediately. Though he no longer was the reigning Open champion, he still was regarded in America as the best golfer in the world.

Vardon frequently played two 18-hole matches a day. In Cincinnati, for example, Vardon played the local professional at the Cincinnati Golf Club, Robert White, who also had designed the course – known today as Cincinnati Country Club – and later became the first president of the PGA of America. Vardon also played the best ball of the two top golfers at the club, winning both matches.

Then in September, Vardon won the U.S. Open at Chicago Golf Club. He was again an Open champion, only a different Open. Immediately after his victory, he was back on the exhibition circuit. He finished on Dec. 10, sailing home to Great Britain a few days later.

What Vardon earned on this year-long tour is unclear. There were reports that he insisted on no less than $200 for each match, win or lose. Others said he received a set sum, plus all travel costs (first class) from Spalding. Estimates of Vardon’s earnings ranged from $6,000 to $8,000. What is clear: Vardon was the best-paid golfer in the world in 1900, mostly from exhibitions.

Vardon’s tour was a huge success. Galleries were large, and Vardon’s sterling play — long drives and accurate iron shots — inspired American golfers who would begin to challenge the dominance of British professionals. Spalding, however, missed the boat with the sales of Vardon clubs and the gutta percha Vardon Flyer. The clubs were true copies of Vardon’s clubs: short and with small heads, they were made for his swing and didn’t work for the average golfer. The “gutty” ball would be replaced within two years by a new rubber-core wound ball which flew farther and was more forgiving. The Vardon Flyer ball met the inglorious fate of being sold as a practice ball, with manufacture discontinued by 1905.

Vardon returned to the United States in 1913 with fellow countryman Ted Ray. They are best known for losing the U.S. Open in a playoff to a 20-year-old amateur, Francis Ouimet. But Vardon and Ray came to America for exhibitions on the East Coast, the Midwest, Canada and as far west as Denver. From early August to Nov. 7, they played 45 matches, winning 36, losing five, with four halves.

Vardon and Ray made another trip to the U.S. in 1920, again playing exhibition matches from August into November, winning 71 matches, losing 23 and halving five. Along the way, Ray won the U.S. Open at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, with Vardon finishing joint second. Ray’s Open purse was $500, and Vardon received $188.

Times have changed. In today’s world, tournaments provide the elite players with name recognition and a fan base for the big money, not from exhibitions but from lucrative endorsement contracts for clubs, balls, apparel, watches and most anything else. Tiger Woods reportedly has made more than $1.5 billion from golf, but only 10 percent of that was from tournament winnings.

The Woods-Mickelson winner-take-all $9 million exhibition match is just a one-off, a part of golf’s so-called Silly Season and not a regular event. Given the participants’ endorsement contracts, it’s not even for big money.