THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — Tiger Woods started his World Challenge in 1999, 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 though it now awards world ranking points, it does not count as an official win on any tour.
But it’s serious business to 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 $4 million of his own money to join presenting 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 programs going,” Woods said.
He described the World Challenge earlier in the week as his “showcase event” that he created with his late father, Earl Woods. And while the trophy and a $1 million check will be presented Sunday at Sherwood Country Club, one of the more compelling moments came before the tournament even started.
Standing at a podium Wednesday night at a private pro-am dinner was Edgar Perez, a senior at Savanna High School, located in the same impoverished Orange County neighborhood where the 14-time major champion built his first Tiger Woods Learning Center.
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 the seventh grade. He described himself as “frail, socially awkward and apathetic.” Upon hearing a presentation from a TWLC alum, the boy turned in his application and became a regular at the state-of-the-art center.
As a senior, he is the student body president and the school’s highest achiever. He is likely to become an Earl Woods Scholar to pay for his education at Reed College in Portland, Ore. He would be the first person in his family to go to college, not unusual for the previous 77 students in the program.
Only at the end did his voice crack when he introduced Woods, who embraced him and said to the audience, “Wow.”
“This is why we’re here, people like Edgar,” Woods said.
The message gets lost in another tournament, where the rich get richer. The 18-man field combined for about $65 million in PGA Tour earnings alone this year, and 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 centers. Along with the original TWLC in Orange County, there are two campuses in the Washington, D.C., area, one in Philadelphia and another in south Florida.
The foundation says 100,000 kids have attended TWLC programs, and that 73 percent of TWLC students have a higher GPA that 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. “There’s a lot of things Tiger does that people don’t know about.”
The World Challenge has raised $25 million 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 — the AT&T National, which began in 2007, and the Deutsche Bank Championship, which began in 2003 and became a FedEx Cup playoff event in 2007. That total now stands at $14.2 million.
How much longer the World Challenge continues is uncertain.
Greg McLaughlin, president of the Tiger Woods Foundation, said it has a reserve fund that supports operations and programs, such as the learning centers. He did not say whether the World Challenge could go another year without a title sponsor, saying only that it was “very important.” The tournament has been given a date for 2013 — moved back one week to Dec. 5-8 — but that doesn’t mean it will be played.
“Northwestern Mutual made a significant contribution as a presenting sponsor, but it left a shortfall,” he said. “Tiger stepped up. Tiger’s direct contributions are making up that shortfall.”
The AT&T National contract is through 2014, though a wrinkle was added to renegotiating when AT&T announced on Friday that it become the new title sponsor of the Byron Nelson Championship in 2015.
But it’s this event that holds special meaning for Woods.
“This is what started it all for us,” he said. “If we didn’t have this event, we wouldn’t have the learning center here in Orange County. It brought awareness to what we’re trying to do for kids. … It’s important to me to help these people and give these kids a chance.”