9 scenes you would only have witnessed if you attended the Tiger-Phil match

November 24, 2018

NORTH LAS VEGAS — Maybe you watched it on pay-per-view, for $19.99. Or free on Bleacher Report. Maybe you followed it though the fine live-blogging done on this and other websites.

But what, you ask, was it like to actually be there?

You’ve come to the right place.

We’re here to tell you — in nine easy-to-read paragraphs — what it was like to be at Shadow Creek, an elevated, rolling, verdant golfing oasis surrounded by industrial parks and modest, in-the-desert working-class tract housing.

1. At High Noon, here at the O.K. Corral (Shadow Creek), Tiger and Phil were on the practice tee, under a cloudless sky, with white wooden cutouts of them in celebrated poses. (Tiger fist-pumping; Phil white-man jumping.) It felt like what it is, an exhibition, and a garden party. The name on the back of Joe La Cava’s caddie bib read TIGER. Tim Mickelson’s read PHIL. Nope, this was not Tim Finchem’s silly-season Tour-stamped event. (Tiger’s shoes had gold-capped toes.) Even in their warm-up sessions, both players looked nervous. There have been challenge matches going back to 19th-century Scotland. But they weren’t on pay-per-view, with a winner-takes-all $9 million payday, and a lot of people rooting for you to fail just because the thing you were doing was audacious and did not seem like golf.

2. On brilliant unmistakable display were some of the things that have made fancy-pants golf-in-the-Trump-era reviled in places. There were maybe a thousand lucky souls on property, many of them young men, more than a few of them with dark-wrapper cigars in their mouths and top-shelf drinks in their hands. Add to that the haircuts and the logos and the everything else and you just want to scream This is not golf!

Phil Mickelson eventually prevailed in the inaugural Match.
Phil Mickelson eventually prevailed in the inaugural Match.

3. Then, on the 1st tee, to introduce the protagonists, came a breath of fresh air: Mr. Samuel L. Jackson, the actor and addicted golfer, with his down-home Chattanooga accent and his urban sensibilities and mustard, plaid racing hat. Tiger walked over to him and gave him a hug and all you could think about was the time Sam was playing in the old Hope pro-am, in Palm Springs, and his caddie kept telling him that all the putts break toward Indio, until the actor finally said, “Where the f— is Indio?”

4. The golf on the course followed the golf on the range: It was tight. Tiger and Phil had both played poorly at the Ryder Cup, so there was that. But you could also sense them trying too hard to be perfect, as if the future of this whole form of golf exhibition rested in their hands, requiring not just the production of excellent shots but also witty banter and clever side-wagering, which Phil and Tiger were required to call “challenges.” That of course was forced. Much of the preamble to this thing was forced. And the whole front nine felt, not quite forced, but tight.

What everybody wanted, of course, was to have this thing be a birdiefest. When two iconic pros, Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson, took on two hot-shot amateurs, Harvey Ward and Ken Venturi, in 1956, the four golfers made 27 birdies and an eagle, and they were playing Cypress Point. There was no payday, none advertised, anyhow. It was a grudge match. That match was The Match. This match was trying.

5. At the turn, in the Capital One tent, Phil Mickelson’s parents, Phil and Mary, were enjoying cold ones. (A bottle of water for the dad, a beer for the mom.) On the course, Tiger’s children, his daughter Sam and son Charlie, were watching with interest, alongside Tiger’s girlfriend, Erica Herman. It was the Friday of Thanksgiving Weekend. There are always family considerations, when Thanksgiving roles around, even for two of the most famous golfers in the world. They have families, too. Phil’s three children were all on hand.

6. Jimmy Rollins, the retired shortstop, was on hand. Norm Macdonald, the comedian. Michelle Wie, with blond hair. Ben Stiller, packing a giant cellphone and taking the scene in with a curious expression. Charles Barkley, offering pay-per-view commentary (“they’re playing crappy golf”) and for-the-fans commentary (“they’re playing shitty golf”). Mike Mills, the R.E.M. bassist and golf-nut.

Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson during the Match at Shadow Creek.
Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson during the Match at Shadow Creek.

7. Said Mills, upon seeing where The Match would be played out: “OK, this whole match has been nuts from the get-go. But this last ‘playoff’ hole is just nuts. Where is the windmill? The clown’s mouth? A half-wedge to win $9 million?”

8. He spoke for many. The 18 holes finished in a tie. The fellas went back to 18, a par-5. Another half. Now it was getting dark. The 19th hole can be credited to no architect except desperation: a 95-yard downhill pitch shot, from a practice green, to the 18th green, under the lights with $9 million at stake. Nutso. Fitting.

9. They both made pars the first time, even though Tiger hit it over the green. They both hit pars the second time, even though Tiger hit it over the green. Tiger’s short birdie putt the third time, in the dark, under the lights, in the cooling air, was not what you would have expected to see from him. Phil rolled his birdie putt in. At the end of their press conference, John Bush, a PGA Tour media official, summarized the whole thing succinctly: “Gentlemen, excellent show.”

Michael Bamberger may be reached at mbamberger0224@aol.com.