• Despite what it was billed up to be, Tiger Woods vs. Phil Mickelson was nothing more than a golf match. Yet, it was still a battle where Lefty got the upper hand.
By Daniel Rapaport
November 23, 2018

LAS VEGAS — The stage was set for something spectacular. The months-long promotional campaign had succeeded in generating a healthy amount of buzz. The athletes and celebrities and CEOs showed up en force. The drone flying overhead was functional, if noisy. Shadow Creek was immaculate. Even Mother Nature cooperated with a cloudless, sweater-weather day.

In the end, the Tiger Woods vs. Phil Mickelson turned out to be … a golf match. A glitzy golf match with its share of nice moments, but a golf match nonetheless. Nothing revolutionary, nothing game-changing, nothing wildly entertaining. They put lipstick on a pig. It remained a pig.

But, in fairness, a W is a W. And for Mickelson, whose fantastic career has been overshadowed in the truest sense of the word, any victory over Woods—his Overshadower—is delicious. Especially so when it comes with a $9 million paycheck.

Mickelson holed a five-footer for birdie on the 22nd hole, a makeshift par 3 measuring 93 yards that the pair was playing for a third time, to put a merciful end to “The Match” and collect that unfathomable winning sum. Just five minutes earlier, he missed a putt of similar length for the victory before both, in a nod to their famous détente, agreed to go good-good for par. About 10 minutes before that, on the first playoff hole (the par-5 18th), Woods missed another makeable putt to squander his opportunity for a fist-pump moment. Not exactly a sprint to the finish.

Finally, Mickelson converted for the millions. He’d be the first to tell you, though, that the money was an ancillary prize. This was about beating Tiger.

“I know that, big picture, your career is the greatest of all time,” Mickelson said to Woods. “I’ve seen you do things that are just incredible.

“Just know that I will not ever let you live this one down.”

He continued: “It’s not the Masters. It’s not the U.S. Open. I know, I know. But it’s something.”

Something indeed. The final scene was fitting in its absurdity: two men with a combined age of 90, hitting a glorified pitch shot off a putting green, under spotlights, on a pay-per-view broadcast, in front of nine million dollars cash. This spectacle purposely bucked convention right from the beginning, promising to offer viewers something they’d never seen before: unprecedented access to Woods and Mickelson, both of whom would be mic’d up for the entirety of the round. Two all-time legends—rivals turned buddies—trading haymakers in the form of birdies. Side challenges for six-figure donations to charity. A revolutionary broadcast that treated gambling as a relevant topic rather than taboo.

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All that new-age stuff happened. But sometimes things sound incredible on paper and, for whatever reason, aren’t as sweet when they actually happen.  This was one of those times.

Woods and Mickelson wore the mics, and fans were treated to some genuinely interesting conversations between player and caddy … before Tiger, in typical Tiger fashion, locked in after falling behind with a missed four-footer on the second hole. You could count the amount of times he and Mickelson bantered on one hand after that. The pre-match press conference, with its trash talk and boxing-like staredown, suggested both guys would throw golf decorum out the window. Not so. There was no serious needling, no rubbing a missed putt in someone’s face.

“We had banter here and there, but … I got lost in the competition of things. Focused on trying to hit a shot, put heat on Phil, get a ball in play, a ball on the green, give myself a putt, make putts.”

In other words, golf business as usual.

The side challenges happened, too. Mickelson made headlines when he bet Woods $200,000 he’d make birdie on the first hole. He had the chance to cash in on that bet in perfect fashion as he stared at a straightforward eight-footer. It slid by on the high side. Groans followed.

Then came the $100,000 closest-to-the-pin challenge on the 135-yard 5th hole, where the pin was placed just below a ridge, in a perfect spot for a ball to land past the hole, roll down and scare the cup. Mickelson hit a solid shot to about 15 feet, giving Woods a chance to spin one close and pump energy into the sparse crowd.

He fanned his wedge shot a good 20 yards right of his target.

The anti-climactic challenges were symptomatic of an inconvenient fact that plagued the day: Simply put, neither guy played very well. According to the generous official stat sheet, Mickelson and Woods shot matching three-under 69s. That seems solid enough at first glance, but less so considering this course was begging for birdies, and both guys conceded a fair share of knee-knockers. More pillow fight than prizefight.

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Both players struggled mightily with their putters, so it’s only apropos that the most memorable shot of the match came with a wedge. Down a stroke on the comically picturesque par-3 17th, Woods holed a chip shot to get back to all square.

“He’s been doing that for 20 years,” Mickelson said on the 18th tee. “I’m not sure why anyone is surprised.”

More surprising was Woods’s failure to slam the door shut when he had a chance to. The fiery competitor that he is, he will privately rue that missed putt on the 19th hole.

Most surprising was something that happened away from the golf course, in the vast expanse of the Cybersphere. Bleacher Report Live’s pay-per-view apparatus didn’t function properly, forcing it to offer “The Match” for free—rather than the oft-debated $19.99 price tag—on its website. Free or not, the broadcast was refreshingly modern in its use of data and embrace of gambling; announcers frequented in advanced statistics and hole simulations and betting trends. That won’t make the millions of dollars forfeited from a monumental technical gaffe hurt any less.

All this goes to say, it was a distinctly imperfect event. Such is the risk organizers took when they synthesized this laudably ambitious exhibition. Whether that risk paid off will ultimately be decided by viewership numbers, which will in turn determine whether we see more head-to-head showdowns.

If there are indeed more of these in the cards, Mickelson would be wise to avoid facing Woods mano-y-mano again. Quit while ahead, as they say. Yes, the trash talk could have been better. Yes, the golf left something to be desired. But as imperfect as this was, this was a win for Lefty. Over Tiger. For $9 million.

Imperfect shall suffice.

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