Rory McIlroy beat Tiger Woods by one stroke in “The Match” at Mission Hills on Monday, the second big-money, made-for-television exhibition the pair have played in China.
In front of a huge crowd whose hysteria at being in the presence of two global celebrities caused safety concerns early on, neither man was at his best, Woods struggling with a cold and playing for the first time in some weeks, while McIlroy has been out of form all year.
But on a course tame by the standards of the world’s numbers one and six, neither needed to be. McIlroy worryingly four-putted the first par-three for a double bogey and bogeyed the par-four seventh for an even front nine, but was flawless over the back nine with four birdies and an eagle on the 12th to see off Woods and finish on six-under 67. Woods was one under for the front nine with three birdies and two bogeys; McIlroy caught him on the 14th and the pair were level until Woods bogeyed the 17th. He finished on 68.
But the most important numbers were on the cheques – both men are believed to have received at least US$1.5 million for their day’s work, organisers and sponsors clearly believing it value for money as they try to promote Hainan as a global tourism destination. The event was screened live on CCTV and packaged for highlights – with both players mic’d up for an “inside-the-ropes” experience – for a further 120 countries.
“We had a great time today, I think everyone enjoyed it, the front nine wasn’t great but on the back nine we got it going,” said Woods.
McIlroy added: “All these people are out here to see us play good golf and as Tiger said, on the back nine we did that, made a lot of birdies and both eagled 12, probably the highlight of the day. It’s a great golf course and it was set up so you could shoot a low score.
“It’s always fun to play with Tiger in events like this and we have a lot fun, and it’s great to bring these matches to places like China.”
Before the event, both men watched boys and girls from China’s junior teams in action on the driving range and took part in a “skills challenge” with the most prominent of the mainland’s young stars, Guan Tianlang. Guan won the chipping contest handily.
“Every year we come back the youth development here gets better and I’d love to come back and help that development,” said McIlroy.
“It’s absolutely incredible to see the huge amounts of talented golfers coming through junior programmes and it’s only going to get bigger and bigger as it becomes more established in the Olympics.
“The development programmes that are going on right now, it’s incredible there are so many talented youngsters coming through. I think we’ve both had a great time and are looking forward to coming back soon.”
Woods added: “The sheer number of kids starting to play incredible golf with the Olympics in mind is amazing ... to watch an entire nation come together to promote golf is phenomenal to see.”
A succession of seemingly nerveless 12-15 year-olds bore that out, stepping up to launch balls into the distance with flawless swings, Woods muttering “Good speed … nice shot … how old are you?” and the like.
Andy Guo, a 12-year-old from Dalian, epitomised the youngsters’ apparent fearlessness. “I was a little bit nervous, but more happy and excited,” he said. “I’ve wanted to see him [Woods] for a long time, it’s been my wish for many years.”
Organisers insisted the event was about more than money and marketing. “Tiger has admitted that he’s not short of cash,” said Tenniel Chu, vice-chairman of Mission Hills. “Anywhere in the world he’s been invited multiple times, he’s very selective with his schedule.
“He’s not playing any professional events in China or in Asia [this year] but the fact he’s coming here to China only at Mission Hills is due to the many years of friendship we have.
“Golf is the official provincial game of Hainan and not have the world’s No 1 visit just wouldn’t have been right.
“So this was a gift from us to the Hainan government to help further grow this island’s popularity and also the game of golf on this island and the rest of China.”