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TV Goes for Another Tiger "Showdown"

By John M. Ross,
Tiger Woods
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Tiger Woods will take on Sergio Garcia in "The Battle at Bighorn" on Monday, Aug. 28. (Courtesy PGA of America)

It's being billed as "The Battle at Bighorn," but this one won't make it to the history books the way Custer's last stand against the Sioux did in the long ago. This hoped-for battle is a contrived meeting between two of the best young golfers in the world, cooked up by ABC to add some zip to its TV golf ratings.

And it just might work!

A year ago, the ABC brain trust latched onto the one-on-one format for a special that pitted Tiger Woods against David Duval. When the idea was first hatched, earlier in the year, it seemed like a perfect fit. They were one-two in the World Rankings, and Duval had started off the early 1999 campaign with four impressive wins, including the prestigious Players Championship. He looked like the one who would bring the high-flying Woods back to ground level.

Considering Tiger's immense drawing power on the tube, ABC seemed to have a match-up it could take to the bank. And they billed it as the "Showdown at Sherwood," booked it as the first-ever golf event in prime time, and gave it a slot in August. A $1-million-plus purse was put in place, and ABC sat back and gleefully waited.

Inexplicably, Duval couldn't win again. And by the time the August date approached, many wondered why the match was being played. Duval hadn't even been in contention for four months. Who would expect him to challenge the Tiger?

Well, it wasn't the most exciting match ever recorded, but it was reasonably good entertainment at match play. Tiger eventually won it, 2 and 1, but ABC was the really big winner. The much-ballyhooed "Showdown" earned a 6.9 rating - in prime time remember - the second highest golf gauge of the year, behind the Masters, the perennial leader.

With a number that high, it was a foregone conclusion that they'd come up with another head-to-head match for Tiger this year. And when Sergio Garcia, then only 19, came within a stroke of catching Woods in last year's PGA Championship, you could have bet the rent money that the young Spanish flash would be tapped for the 2000 match-up with Woods.

And that's where we came in, "The Battle at Bighorn." The Tiger vs. El Nino, the European whirlwind, on Monday, August 28, again in prime time at 8 p.m. in the East and, of course, on the ABC network.

When it was first put on paper, it came across as a sure winner, just as the first one had. But, almost identical to the Duval sudden nosedive, young Sergio has gone into a bit of a snooze himself. He has shown some flashes of the superb challenge he threw at Woods in the PGA, but only infrequently. He hits the ball almost as long as Tiger, and he comes up with shots that leave the gallery bug-eyed - again, like Tiger. But the main drawback seems to be a lack of maturity. At age 20, that's understandable. He seems to have difficulty, because of emotional pulls, in putting four good rounds together.

Of course, in terms of a crowd-pleaser, there probably isn't a better choice for such a match. Garcia is the most personable player in golf right now. And you can charge that up to his youth, too. At the PGA last time, he had the fans howling with delight as he raced down the fairway after a difficult shot, and then jumped with boyish joy when he saw that it had reached the green in good shape. Indeed, he had the gallery cheering him down the stretch, drowning out the Tiger fans. And this was a first for Woods, who has had the gallery in the palm of his hand since his teen days.

Whether El Nino can get up enough speed at this point to cool off the incredible season Woods is putting together is questionable. But he must know that the TV people will be pulling for him to reach back for that extra something that will give him a chance to really put Tiger to the test. Few golfers have done that this year, and if ABC can get lucky, it could have the makings of an ongoing showdown.

The similarity of the golf beginnings of this young pair is striking. Like Tiger, Garcia was a child prodigy under the guidance of his father, Victor, a teaching professional at their home club, Club de Golf del Mediterraneo. He started playing at age 3, and he won the club championship when he was 12. He was a scratch player at 13, and he made his first cut on the European Tour as a 14-year-old amateur. Express track? You bet!

El Nino won 19 amateur events in Europe before deciding to sample the greens in the U.S. Playing in Nike Tour events, he set records for lowest scores by an amateur, and attracted attention everywhere he went. He turned pro in 1999, when he was 19.

If Garcia doesn't do it against Tiger this time, the TV fathers will have to crank up their little game, "Who Would Like to Beat a Tiger and be a Millionaire?" That's the purse, incidentally, for the match-up. In fact, it's $1.1 million for the winner, and $400,000 for the loser, with each of the players donating a portion to charity.

Television has always counted on its headline players for specials like this that add a little variety to the year-round tournament schedule. In the early days of the golf boom, and TV coverage, considerable impact - and large bucks - were gained from the hugely-successful series, "The Big Three," featuring Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. It ran for years and was widely credited with bringing more people into the game. It is still enjoyed by many in re-runs.

TV also used its super-stars in another off-season series, "Shell's Wonderful World of Golf." This one combined quality head-to-head play with a travelogue of sorts. It took the fans on a magic carpet to a different country each week, showing off the world's best courses - in some cases for the first time on television.

Gene Sarazen, the show's host and narrator, could never get over the fact that more people saw him on one telecast than the combined number of live galleryites who had seen him play in more than 40 years of tournaments and exhibitions.

Viewers of the Woods-Garcia match will get a reminder of the Shell series when they see the beauty of the Canyons Course, where the match will be played. Designed by Tom Fazio, it winds its way through the rock-studded canyons, copper foothills and majestic waters of the Santa Rosa Mountains, near Palm Desert, California and near the site of the battle where Custer died. It stretches 7,083 yards, but these two belters will have no trouble with that.

Now, if Garcia can only remember how he did it in the PGA!

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

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