News & Opinion

Woods plays the Hero for more than it's worth

The 18-man Hero World Challenge attracts an outsized share of world-ranking points for one reason: host Tiger Woods’ clout

For all the people who have asked me about the first time I attended the Masters, nobody has projected that same level of curiosity about my inaugural Hero World Challenge. It was hosted by a petroleum company back in 1999, which matters not since the event always has been known as Tiger’s tournament, as charity proceeds are directed toward the foundation of five-time winner Eldrick T. Woods. Through thick and thicker, this 18-man, end-of-year gathering probably has covered the cost of a sizeable number of laptops used by underprivileged kids in the Los Angeles area. That alone makes it a worthwhile endeavor.

From its original home in Scottsdale, Ariz., where it snowed that week and I was too dumb to pack anything more than a pullover, to its current location in the Bahamas, the HWC has gone by more names and passed through more places than a wily bank robber. Six different title sponsors, a relatively lengthy stay in southern California and a pit stop in Orlando ….

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods returns to the PGA Tour this week as defending champion at the Zozo Championship, which has relocated from Japan to Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks, Calif., where Woods has enjoyed plenty of success over the years.

The one constant at the Tiger invitational has been its designation as an “official” tournament by the Official World Golf Ranking. This is a mistake, and though the backstory isn’t very sexy, it’s still worth telling because the event provides an unfair competitive advantage to a limited sector of the game’s elite players. At the root of the problem is the size of the field at the HWC. Just 18 guys teed it up this week, by far the smallest number of entries all year, so a player ranked outside the top 50 has virtually no chance of ever getting an invite from Woods (scores).

Having long subscribed to the theory that golf is a star-driven enterprise and that the game’s top tier has earned the right to opportunities that the rank-and-file doesn’t get, I’m an even stronger believer in fairness. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with staging a tournament with 18 players. The HWC is not an official PGA Tour event, however, nor does it hold official status on any other tour. If this weren’t a Woods project, it never would have been certified with value by the OWGR.

When Woods became the de facto host 20 years ago, he still was an IMG client, and IMG still was overseeing the ranking system. When the Tour began moving in on management of the property several years later, it basically looked the other way on the matter. We’re talking about an exclusive reward in a performance-rating formula that is supposed to be completely unbiased. Why? Because Woods is involved. The last thing anyone in Ponte Vedra Beach wants to do is aggravate its relationship with the bus driver. And make no mistake. Eldrick T. drives the bus.

Is it a huge deal? No, but if you’re 47th in the ranking and play poorly for a couple of weeks, then slip out of the top 50 and lose your spot in the Masters, you might feel like you’ve been run over by that bus. Jon Rahm received 48 points for winning last year’s HWC. That’s more credit than he received for his victory at the Irish Open earlier this year, and amazingly, almost 10 points more than the 38.4 he received for his runner-up finish at the Euro Tour’s PGA Championship, which is nothing less than its flagship event.

We’re all big fans of awarding guys for winning, but beating 17 guys is a whole lot different than beating 143. The HWC carries substantial weight in the ranking simply because of the strength of its field, which one would expect when a dozen and a half guys show up. Otherwise, Woods wouldn’t bother. A smart aleck might surmise that 18 contestants is more of a picnic than a golf tournament, and when you add it all up, the distribution of points this week is either a glaring loophole or a nice little favor to the man with 15 majors.

I’ve always liked small-field events. This year’s Tigerfest has a weaker field than usual, however, as four of the top 10 players in the ranking are absent, including three of the top four. Maybe that’s a good thing. A replacement invitee such as Chez Reavie, who had a nice 2019 but is still 36th in the world, will appreciate the chance to capitalize on this freebie a lot more than Brooks Koepka, Rory McIlroy or Dustin Johnson, whose spot Reavie now occupies.

I don’t recall this tournament ever including five players who were outside the top 35 in the ranking, but then, I don’t remember a lot of things. Forgetting to bring a jacket to Scottsdale 20 years ago was one of them.