Every week GOLF senior writer Michael Bamberger identifies — and ranks — the absolute, undeniably, very best things in golf right now.
7. Best Plane Convo En Route to The Match
Flew Spirit, Philadelphia to Las Vegas, on Thanksgiving eve. Not bad! I had an aisle seat, row 13. The very first words from the gent sitting next to me were these: “How do I get in?” Something on my laptop, evidently, gave the purpose of my trip away. The man in the middle then told me he was a member of a club in Buffalo, and wondered if his pro there could make a call, if that might open a door for him. I asked if he knew Tiger or Phil, as that might be a surer route in. The public was not invited to The Match although, as it turned out, you could watch it for free.
6. Best Revelation En Route to Vegas
The fellow sitting next to the window of our row had one of those laptops you can draw on. He was doing advanced math on it, like Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, except Damon’s character was at a chalkboard. The man in the window seat had heard of Tiger Woods. “Tiger Woods is one of the most famous athletes in the world,” he said in his accented English. (I’m guessing the man was from Pakistan.) He had never heard of Phil Mickelson.
5. Best Facial Expression at The Match
The Match was more entertainment than a real athletic competition. In fact, one of its producers and creators is a FOP (friend of Phil’s) named Bryan Zuriff, who is, among other things, a TV producer. I have played golf with Bryan. He’s what people, unable to find just the right word, sometimes call a character. He’s not boring. He is also a producer on a new Showtime limited series called Escape at Dannemora. All eight episodes were directed by Ben Stiller, who was at The Match. I don’t know anything about Stiller’s interest in golf. But you know that face he has made often in his acting life, where his head gets angled just so and his lips are sealed and a metaphorical question mark appears on his forehead? You see it in Meet the Parents as he considers some odd comment by his possible future father-in-law, played by Robert DeNiro in a V-neck sweater suitable for fall golf. Every time I saw Stiller at The Match, I saw a version of that face.
4. Best Genuine Emotion at The Match
The most painful thing at The Match was the pretend emotion in Phil’s I-just-don’t-want-to-lose bit, which he trotted out at different press conferences. But the best real emotion from Phil that I saw came on the par-4 14th hole. Phil and Tiger had both hit their tee shots into a sunken fairway trap on the right side of the hole. Tiger played first, a difficult shot over a tall lip and a small pond to a right-side hole location. A $9 million payday was at stake. Mickelson stood on the edge of the bunker, looking down into the pit, as his opponent played his shot. Phil’s eyes looked tired, likely from all the different hats he was wearing. (Acting is exhausting. You know. You just got through Thanksgiving.) As he stood there, you could see Phil focus on his breathing, full breaths, his shoulders rising and falling, rising and falling as he attempted to gather himself. Both players hit fine shots, by the way. The average scratch golfer would hit it on the green less than half the time from there.
3. Best Prenup Question Regarding The Match
I wish I had a dollar for every time somebody asked me if Tiger and Phil were actually splitting the $9 million pot. My wallet would have eight or nine more dollars in it, unless I got paid by Venmo. There was a time, years ago, that purse-splitting was a practice in playoffs. A private deal would be made for first money and second money to be added together and halved. Arnold once offered such a deal to Jack, who appreciated the gesture but declined it. But the Tour put a prohibition on that practice a long time ago and I would assume it is enforced, particularly in this age of direct deposit. Still, questions persisted, and in a press conference before the event, a reporter asked the protagonists, “Can you assure everybody that’s going to be watching on Friday that the loser of this match will not receive one dollar of the $9 million, and this money is not going to be shared upon the two of you in any way, shape or form?” Tiger said, “Yeah. That’s how it was originally scripted and that’s how we’ve done the deal.” Phil said, “If I win though I might give him a few grand because he’s earned it. That’s just me. I’m like that.” I have to think that Tiger was being truthful and Phil was being funny.
2. Best Unexpected Revelation at The Match
The course. No question. In a sense, it represents everything in golf for which (to borrow a phrase) I have unaffected scorn. Shadow Creek rises out of the developed flatland desert of industrial/working-class North Las Vegas. In terms of taking what nature gives you, it’s hard to imagine a more artificial course. It required a staggering amount of earth-moving to build it, and I don’t think Al Gore is giving it his Best Practices environmental stamp anytime soon. But it exists in the vicinity of a gambling fantasyland that has recreated ancient Egypt, the Statue of Liberty and other landmarks, so why shouldn’t there be 350 rolling acres of North Carolina Highlands out of what had been a sandy prairie? It’s a Tom Fazio course that twists and turns. It’s playable, it flows, it’s bucolic. I could see why it’s on so many top 100 lists.
1. Best Leftover Artwork
Over the years, I’ve done locker room walk-throughs at many tournaments on Sunday nights. You always see some interesting things, including unsolicited items sent to players. Sunday night at Shadow Creek, I saw something I haven’t seen before, a framed oil painting of Tiger and Earl hugging and smiling, Tiger in a pinstriped suit. There’s something primal and interesting about the painting. I suspect Tiger has had artists send him other paintings over the years. In Arnold Palmer’s barn/warehouse in Latrobe, Pa., there are probably dozens of paintings people had sent him. Arnold couldn’t throw out anything, and his mother was the same way. I think Tiger is far more of a minimalist.
Michael Bamberger may be reached at Michael_bamberger@golf.com.