THOUSAND OAKS — Tiger Woods started his World Challenge in 1999: it was a chance to bring together top players from around the world for a tournament that amounted to a holiday exhibition to raise money for his foundation.
It offered big money, even for the guy who finished last. And although it now awards world ranking points, it does not count as an official win on any tour.
But it’s serious business for Woods. When the tournament lost its title sponsor last year, and a deal with a major company unexpectedly fell through at the last minute in early September, Woods spent what is believed to be about $4m of his own money to join sponsor Northwestern Mutual in covering the operating costs. "We’re going to be doing everything we can to keep the tournament going and keep all our programmes going," Woods said. He described the World Challenge as his "showcase event", which he created with his late father, Earl Woods.
One of the more compelling moments of the tournament occurred before it even started.
Standing on a podium on Wednesday night at a private pro-am dinner was Edgar Perez, a senior at Savanna High School, which is located in the same impoverished Orange County neighbourhood where Woods built his first Tiger Woods Learning Centre.
Wearing a black suit and a red tie, standing tall before an audience of VIPs, Perez told of his family’s business going bankrupt during the economic downturn when he was in grade 7. He described himself then as "frail, socially awkward and apathetic". After hearing a presentation from a learning centre alumna, the boy turned in his application and became a regular there.
As a senior, he is the student body president and the school’s highest achiever, and is likely to become an Earl Woods Scholar to pay for his education.
He would be the first person in his family to go to college, which is not unusual for the previous 77 students who participated in the programme.
Only at the end of his speech did his voice crack, when he introduced Woods, who embraced him and said: "Wow. This is why we are here, people like Edgar."
However, the message gets lost in yet another tournament where the rich get richer. The 18-man field combined for about $65m in PGA Tour earnings alone this year, and even last place pays $120,000.
Woods is not naturally gifted as a public speaker, and it’s easy to tune him out when he talks about the foundation or the learning centres. The foundation said 100,000 children have attended learning centre programmes, and that 73% of the students have a higher grade point average than their school district’s average.
Steve Stricker was at the pro-am dinner and said he "got teary-eyed" when Perez spoke, which is not alarming.
Stricker once donated $100,000 of his earnings at the World Challenge to the foundation, though he was not aware how much Woods paid this year for operating costs. Nor was he surprised. "It shows what this event means to him," Stricker said.
The World Challenge has raised $25m for the foundation since it began, including prize money from Woods. He has won five times, which helps. Only last year was it revealed that Woods also donates his prize money from every tournament that benefits the foundation.
It is uncertain how much longer the World Challenge will continue. Tiger Woods Foundation president Greg McLaughlin said it had a reserve fund that supported its operations and programmes. But he did not say whether the World Challenge could go another year without a title sponsor. The tournament has been given a date for next year — moved back one week to December 5-8 — but that does not mean it will be played.