The Match that Never Was

Much of sports’ hallowed nostalgia derives from the great “mano y mano” showdowns between rivals. Muhammad Ali and George Foreman’s Rumble in the Jungle; the Boston Red Sox versus the New York Yankees in the 2004 ALCS; Floyd Mayweather versus Conor McGregor’s pay-per-view bout; the Boston Celtics versus the Los Angeles Lakers of the 2008 NBA Finals; and the Miracle on Ice are just the tip of the iceberg. The legacies of these great sporting events are all seared in our minds and inked into the annals of history. But “The Match” between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson? Ultimately, both Woods’ and golf’s fans alike were disappointed in the outcome of the afternoon, as what was touted as a bout between two of golf’s greatest players proved to be no more than a mistake-ridden publicity stunt.

Theoretically, who would have been better to represent the entertainment value of golf than the ever-controversial Woods and the off-the-cuff humor of Mickelson? As both reached their prime at the turn of the century, they constantly battled in major after major to be crowned champion. Most notably, two of Mickelson’s three Masters victories in 2004 and 2006 sandwich Woods’ most recent Masters victory in 2005. The two undoubtedly have history and are widely considered two of the most consistent and successful golfers of all time (perhaps overlooking Woods’ troubling period of personal issues and injuries).

Add in the allowance of side betting throughout the course on top of the nine million dollars already promised to the winner, and each hole becomes a riveting back and forth battle. Given that the match took place in Las Vegas and outside of PGA oversight, all betting became legal, in line with golf’s quiet but well-known history of gambling. However, after Mickelson lost a $200,000 bet to birdie the first hole on a putt and almost no one reacted, it became clear that the bets added little to the competitive edge. These golfers simply make so much money even when they do not win from the gorged tournament purses, sponsorships, and other engagements that the betting margins were insignificant, especially to two of golf’s most successful players. In the end, Mickelson won majority of the side betting, putting only a small dent in Woods’ massive pockets.

What this event also lacked relative to those legendary showdowns in the past was the fierce tenacity and animosity between rivals. Perhaps the civility of golf does not lend itself to such behavior, but that afternoon golf match simply lacked anything special quite like the brash smugness of Kevin Garnett in the 2008 Finals or the underlying political tension between the U.S. and Russia in the Olympics. Both sides remained quiet and calm, as though the match were on any other Sunday during the actual PGA tournaments, and the crowd in no way resembled the expected Happy Gilmore-esque riots (except for a young woman who purportedly was caught on the livestream handing her phone number to Woods). In the end, the hype and drama mellowed out to be just another golf match between two old legends of the game.

What did not help was that the production itself ended up being a ridiculed failure in its own right, as Turner Sports, responsible for the pay-per-view facilitation of the “exclusive” match, failed to ensure its payment systems were properly in place. The result was that the match became publicly available and lacked that exclusivity appeal of the McGregor versus Mayweather match. Sports websites hosted public livestreams, broadcasting it to anyone who wanted to watch, and in the process, Turner lost its money just as the match lost its edge.

Unfortunately, all of these shortcomings detracted from what was otherwise a competitive match. Woods and Mickelson went the distance and then had to play the playoff hole, a short creation from the putting green to the 18th green, four times before a winner was finally crowned. Even before then, Mickelson was leading going into the final two holes, before Woods knocked in one of his famous chip shots on 17 to even up the score. In the end, Mickelson managed to pull ahead on the 93 yard 19th hole, winning the pot and bragging rights in their rivalry.

Ironically enough, one of the most entertaining moments of the event came during that award ceremony, when Mickelson was given a diamond belt — that did not fit him. Mickelson joked that the designer thought that Woods was going to win all along as moderator Ernie Johnson. Woods and the crowd chuckled alongside.

“I know big picture your career is the greatest of all-time. But just know that I will never let you live this one down. I will bring it up every time I see you,” said Mickelson during the award ceremony.

While this match between two golf heavyweights may not make it into any history books, Woods and Mickelson will no doubt still be enshrined into the elite tier of golf’s greatest players, alongside Nicklaus, Palmer, Hogan, Jones, Watson, and company. What the match lacked in edgy competition, it made up for as a feel-good finale for both players, as they seemed good-natured heading into the latter half of their respective careers. Golf simply may not be cut out for the high-intensity showdowns that common viewers crave, but Woods and Mickelson were no doubt cut out to be golf’s greatest.

Adam Schauer

Adam is Swarthmore Baseball's 2017-2018 runner-up in saves and a sports writer for the Phoenix. A lifelong sports nut from the nation's capital, Adam channels all of his anger of the Nationals failing to win a single playoff series into motivation to write for The Phoenix. He hopes that his readers do not feel the same reading his articles as he does every MLB postseason: disappointed.

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