Everything I learned from staying up all night to watch the Japan Skins

October 21, 2019
The Japan Skins Challenge brought together a star-studded foursome.

Armed with a weekend’s worth of optimism and a healthy supply of Stella Artois, Sean Zak and I took to the GOLF Magazine offices at 11 p.m. on Sunday to take in the glorious MGM Resorts The Challenge: Japan Skins (really rolls off the tongue, I know) in all its glory. We also recorded a podcast as the night went along, which you can listen to here.

For those of you who enjoyed a proper night’s sleep, here’s how it went down from start to finish.

11:00 p.m. Golf Central comes in live with Ryan Burr and Brandel Chamblee to preview the action, super-cut with some shots of these guys walking in from their cars. This gives it a very “NFL quarterback entering the locker room” vibe. No goofy suits, unfortunately — these guys are already golf-garbed up — but still, the parking lot shots never fail to deliver.

11:03. It’s technically still Sunday in the States, but Tiger isn’t wearing red. This feels like a bit of a tip-off; this ain’t The Match. Hopefully it’s better!

11:18. Todd Lewis is interviewing Tiger and my main takeaway is that it’s time to retire the phrase “giving the needle.” It’s up there with “grow the game” on the short list of overused golf phraseology, and Tiger really beats it into the ground. If we’re going to keep doing these things, there has to be another way to refer to talkin’ a little smack.

11:24. We’ve got Rich Lerner and Ian Baker-Finch on the Golf Channel call, who report that 2500 fans will be in attendance. I can’t decide if that’s a large or small number, but the camera phone shutter sounds (which can’t legally be shut off in Japan) are already audible in warmups.

11:55. We wrap up a spirited skins game of our own at Teal Gardens, the Japanese course on the Golden Tee in our break room. On the pre-game, Brandel Chamblee has been in his element, breaking down swings and giddily rubbing his hands together (I tried to apply the same principles to a shaky Golden Tee short game, with some success). He’s ready. We’re ready. Showtime.

12:05. And they’re off! Like a herd of turtles. Tiger, Rory, Jason, Hideki. Four tee shots, none in the fairway. Oops! Day actually hits a spectacular recovery shot inside 10 feet, but his putt catches the lip. The hole is tied with pars — no thanks to Woods, who chops around before picking up a lengthy bogey putt.

12:15. Everybody hits iron off the second tee, a 360-yard par-4. This seems like a bad sign in a game where everybody is theoretically making as many as birdies as he can. No time to panic, though. We’re in this for the long haul

12:18. Things are moving quickly. Players are cruising through shots like they’re in a practice round, with the obvious exception of Day standing over putts. That’s not a routine he breaks easily. Henni Zuel is doing live hits and interviews; she just asked Tiger what his best shot of all time was. Great question, but seems a little early to be going that big! Emptying the chambers on the second hole.

12:27. Rory hits a horrific putt on No. 2; Tiger follows up with one that’s even worse. His 25-footer easily travels 40 feet. Hideki and Day fare a little better and tie with pars.

12:32. Another weird one from Woods, who pull-hooks a 7-iron at the par-3 3rd onto a cart path, then chips from there into a bunker. Meanwhile, Day’s birdie putt catches the edge and falls in. First blood! These first six holes are $10k each, so that’s $30k to J-Day. He’s never played a skins game, he said beforehand, which means these are his first three skins ever. It still feels like this event is on pre-heat.

12:41. In Japan, courses traditionally have two sets of greens (often one for winter, one for summer based on grass types) and there’s a corresponding challenge on the 4th hole: For $100,000 to charity, players can choose to play to either of the two greens. Dealer’s choice! Better yet, you can switch whenever you want.

Woods finds the fairway but hits the rough halfway in between the two greens. “That was such a bad shot,” he says, exasperated but trying to stay light-hearted on the broadcast. “I tried to hit a cut and pull-hooked it!” He and Rory end up making matching 4s, and he faux-celebrates his first par.

12:55. Tiger and Rory walk alongside each other for a while in silence. The cameras and announcers lay out, likely expecting them to break into conversation. They don’t. Rory checks his yardage book reflexively, the way you’d check your phone on an elevator with someone you don’t know what to say to. Oh well.

12:58. At the par-3 5th, something weird happens. First Day hits — and splashes one in the water short and right of the green. Next is Woods, who hits another high hook that never gets near the green and kicks into the left bunker. It turns out to be the best of the bunch. Rory blocks his: water. It’s Hideki’s chance to take control of the hole, which is just under 180 yards. Instead he follows the other two with a flare into the water! Tiger cleans up an up-and-down from the bunker and suddenly has two skins for $20k with a scrappy par. One birdie through the first hour of play.

1:14. Finally, some pro-level stuff as the par-5 6th is halved with birdies. Sidenote: There’s a distinct, high volume “Oo-ahh” coming from the crowd every time Rory hits driver — as there should be.

1:30. We are suddenly introduced to four hulking men as part of a “rugby scramble” for charity challenge No. 2, and I’m wondering how many spins on the Idea Wheel this one took. Maybe it’s an appeal to the Aussie audience, who could be live-streaming from work rather than the middle of the night? Either way, it’s solid comedy. Each pro is paired with an international rugby star for a two-man scramble on a 145-yard par-3. The pros each hit the green, while the am efforts are highlighted by Hideki’s partner Bryan Habana’s full set of iron covers.

1:35. Hideki rams in his 35-footer and Habana, who’s easily 250 lbs, leaps into his arms. It’s a great moment, although it sort of ruins the hole — a skins game scramble on a short par-3 is definitely going to lead to pushing with birdies. McIlroy’s partner Brian O’Driscoll holes his for the official push, although the others keep putting. This is their moment.

1:40. Seemingly unaware that speaking in hushed tones will still very much end up coming through the telecast, Rory mutters something to O’Driscoll. “There’s a couple articles written in the last week that were just so bad,” he says. “They’re so hyped. It’s hard to handle that. And the public…” I think he’s talking about the Irish rugby team, who have been getting ripped by home media outlets for losing in the World Cup quarterfinal. It’s likely something he can relate to.

1:50. Day is fascinated by the rough, which I believe is that fluffy zoysia. “I’ve never played rough like this! The blades are so huge,” he says. Day is definitely the MVP of this thing thus far. Guy was made for the camera.

1:55. Tiger birdies No. 8! “How ‘bout that!” he yells. Timing is everything in skins, and he’s suddenly your outright leader — five skins and $60,000 — despite a mediocre start.

1:58. Finally, we get some time with Hideki. Henni Zuel tracks him down on a walk down the fairway, which means translator Bob Turner gets some shine, too. It’s certainly the strangest part of these four being mic’d up: Hideki hasn’t said a word! His English is better than he lets on, but he still seems far more comfortable with a translator. One thing is clear from his demeanor: The skinless local hero is getting determined to get on the board.

2:03. Things are starting to loosen up a bit out here, and get into a flow. Rory and Tiger strike up a conversation about playing at altitude, which is canned but also interesting and, in that way, microcosmic of the entire affair.

2:05. Fun moments from around the green: Rory and Hideki, both notorious tinkerers, compare putters. “Five putters in a year,” Rory says, gesturing to his TaylorMade. Day misses a putt and drops a hard f-bomb. Several men wearing caddie bibs seem to have taken over caddie duties for the hole; they’re scampering amongst the players and cameramen.

2:25. “The long par-4s are long,” Tiger mutters, Berra-esque, to Joe LaCava, and he’s right — there are a bunch of 490-500 yard brutes playing even longer in cool weather. Rory sends a missile off No. 11 tee into the crowd on the right and it takes a massive bounce. “I hope that was the cart path and not someone’s head,” he says. Day, who has never played the hole, tells him confidently there’s a good angle from over there. This hole is a bear; I don’t remember seeing Tiger or Day ever hit 3-wood into a par-4, but both do so. I guess Tiger’s right; these long par-4s ARE long.

2:43. Our podcast producer has fallen asleep somewhere in the office. The Stellas are dwindling and the Sun Chips are starting to taste like cardboard. But Rory’s starting to heat up! He flags it on 12, then tackles a compelling Koepka question in proper fashion, demonstrating that he didn’t love what Koepka said about him but that he couldn’t really object to it, either. Then he kicks in a birdie putt to win four skins of his own and join Tiger at $60k, in a share of the lead. Big hole for Rors.

2:58. Hey now — Hideki’s on the board, too. His birdie, accompanied by a 270-degree lipout from Rory, gives him the first $20k skin (the values went up again) at No. 13. Everybody has a skin.

3:05. There’s one last charity challenge, and it’s a fun one: A one-club challenge on the 525-yard par-5 14th, playing into the wind. In my mind it’s a no-brainer 3-wood; these guys can hit it relatively close with two good rips. McIlroy seems the most tempted by that approach (“Please do,” Tiger tells him) but all four end up hitting irons. In three shots, Day finds the bunker, Tiger finds the left collar and Hideki and Rory each hit the green. I think they were right on club selection, not me. Day proceeds to hit a super-saucy 6-iron from the sand and all four essentially walk away with pars (although Hideki missed a tap-in with his 5-iron). This is actually getting really fun.

3:15. Tiger is in a share of the lead but he’s in full self-deprecating mode, too. He hits a heel-cut driver off No. 15 tee and remarks how he should be teeing off from the start of the fairway. “If that was an iron, I would’ve shanked it,” he says.

3:26. Rory lips out his birdie putt, missing a chance to take complete control. It’s getting on towards evening in Japan. “It’s getting dark quick,” Tiger says to Hideki, who replies with one word: “Nighttime.” He’s right. Good talk.

3:33. No. 16 is now worth $60k, and Tiger hits his approach inside 15 feet only to have Day hit it even closer. All four guys have turned it on coming home. Tiger pours in his putt, then Day does the same to match. Speaking of matching, he’s wearing a TW-branded sweater vest. Beating the man while wearing his clothing line is a heck of a move.

3:38. Sunset in Chiba, Japan is at 4:56 p.m., and we’re getting darn close. Luckily for all involved, 17 and 18 are illuminated. This is really fun, especially with a brutish par-4 on the way, 491 yards with a small landing area. Tiger and Rory are back to awkward small-talk, but find a lighter moment when each clanks his approach shot off the back grandstand. Nobody hits the green, but Rory hits an awesome mega-flop from there, leaving the shortest look for par. But Day’s putter comes up clutch for the second hole in a row, while McIlroy’s betrays him: he pulls his short par putt through any break. $110k to Day, your new leader!

3:45. Awesome TopTracer shots of these four ripping drivers into the night sky at No. 18, a tricky par-5 (at least this time of day). Tiger finds the left trees, Rory hits his under a maintenance truck and Hideki and Day end up with clean looks at the green.

3:55. Tiger has to lay up, while Rory and Hideki each end up way right and Day’s ball is tracking for the pin but comes up short in the front bunker. Tiger hits a nice wedge some 12 feet past the hole, which is the group’s only chance to match Day, whose bunker shot settles inside two feet.

4:03. The stage is set now: it’s a do-or-die putt for Tiger, slightly downhill, a touch of right-to-left. Should fit his eye. But…uh oh. He leaves it short! Not like, on the front edge. Devastatingly short, maybe 18 inches short. Yikes. He expertly scoops it away and seamlessly morphs into congratulatory mode, dapping up Day and the others. If he’s disappointed, he’s hiding it well. All four might be secretly relieved not to be playing extra holes.

4:08. There’s a short ceremony with Day, who downplays the importance of the whole thing, no doubt thrilling MGM executives. With that, there’s a quick wrap-up in the booth — followed by a jarring cut to a PGA Tour Champions re-run. Tommy Tolles is suddenly on my screen, trying to hang onto the solo lead.

4:13. It’s moved past “late” and on to “early” in the GOLF offices. Yawns aplenty. I eagerly turn off Tolles, who provides an obvious contrast to the big names and bright lights. Late night golf isn’t typically this good.

4:15. I’m left thinking about the possibilities of an event like this. The best parts of this skins game eres the moments that felt like natural conversations — even if they weren’t all that groundbreaking. The NFL’s “Mic’d Up” segments are a saturated version of the best interactions over the course of a game; the PGA Tour could do something similar. Getting these guys mic’d up when they’re not thinking about being mic’d up would be the best. Oh well. When it comes to Monday midnight to 4 a.m. golf content, this is about as good as I’ve ever seen.

In the meantime, it’s time for bed.

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