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The Match hasn’t started yet, but Phil Mickelson has already made a terrible bet

November 21, 2018

Even by PGA Tour standards, Phil Mickelson makes a lot of birdies. But he made a real bogey on Tuesday afternoon when he initiated the first wager of Friday’s match with Tiger Woods.

“$100,000 says I birdie the hole,” Mickelson said to Woods, referring to the par-4 first at Shadow Creek. “That’s how good I feel about this hole heading into this match. You don’t have to take it at all.”

But Woods issued a wise rebuttal: “Double it.” Mickelson agreed, and feigned instant victory. “Did you see how I baited him like that?” Mickelson asked the assembled crowd, who laughed.

Au contraire, Phil. The $200,000 bet Lefty put on the table is, by any statistical measure, a disaster. Let’s break down why.

The par-4 opener at Shadow Creek is 393 yards, making it relatively short by PGA Tour standards. But take a look at the hole itself. The landing area narrows significantly about halfway down the hole, meaning Mickelson will either lay back off the tee or try to find a relatively small target with his mercurial driver. A creek runs down the left side of the hole, while a fairway bunker guards the dogleg.

Shadow Creek
The first hole at Shadow Creek is no pushover.

In effect, that combination makes Shadow Creek’s opener a relatively neutral par 4, perhaps slightly easier than average. And there’s more good news for Mickelson: in 2018, he ranked sixth on Tour in birdie average, as well as sixth in par-4 birdie average. The only problem? He birdied par-4s just 20.06 percent of the time. That’s admirable, by the way — Dustin Johnson led the Tour and was hardly any better at 22.52 percent. But that number should be far closer to 50 percent for Mickelson’s bet to make sense.

For comparison, the easiest par-4 on Tour in 2018 was the drivable 299-yard 14th at TPC Potomac, home to the Quicken Loans National. And players made birdie or better just 187 out of 388 times, resulting in a 48.2 percent conversion rate. Shadow Creek’s opener is certainly more difficult.

Nor are all sub-400 yard par 4s pushovers, even for the best players in the world. There were 14 par-4s measuring 390-395 yards on Tour in 2018. Pros birdied them at a rate of just 19.33 percent.

Need more evidence? Take a look at the betting markets. Mickelson and Woods were each in the neighborhood of +300 to birdie No. 1 before their on-air wager went live (those bets were taken down not long after).

Phil Mickelson
Phil Mickelson may have wanted to grab some better odds before his first wager on Tuesday.

A final way to look at it is to check out the expected value of Mickelson’s cash. Given the setup of the first hole at Shadow Creek, he is betting $200,000 on something that has a roughly one in five chance of paying out. That means he has a 20 percent chance at leaving with $400,000, which leaves him with an expected end total of $80,000. Down $120k? Not a great investment.

Woods, on the other hand, has an 80 percent chance of cashing in on a non-birdie. That means he has, for now, turned his $200,000 into an expected $320,000.

Of course, Mickelson could make me (and Woods) look awfully foolish on the first hole Friday — in just three shots.