The Match was billed as a spectacle, but in the end it was just two proud champions playing golf

November 24, 2018

I knew The Match was going to be a different kind of viewing experience when I couldn’t actually watch it. I had planned to be in Las Vegas but was grounded by an ear infection, proof that the Golf Gods do have a sense of humor. It wasn’t until a half hour before the first tee shot that I bothered to try to order this made-for-TV spectacle, but the Bleacher Report channel on my Roku kept coming back with different error messages.

In desperation I rang Brophy’s, my favorite pub in my hometown of Carmel, Calif., where Graeme MacDowell partied Sunday night after winning the U.S. Open. The dude on the phone said his boss was trying to figure out how to order it and to call back in half an hour. I rang another popular nearby watering hole for golfers, Mulligan’s. “We just have the ballgames on today,” said the gal on the phone. “It’s like $5,000 for a business to order that Match thingy so we’re not going to pay that.”

I never did get the Match to work on my TV, forced instead to watch it on my laptop. (For free. Seems like a bad business model but what do I know?) It was an exercise in cognitive dissonance. The announcers wouldn’t stop raving about Shadow Creek’s aesthetics but my eyes kept going to the aeration holes on the greens. There was breathless talk about the use of the world’s largest drone for beauty shots but its buzzing was so loud it was a distraction on nearly every shot on the opening holes. I was excited to have the players mic’d up, until Phil’s heavy mouth-breathing and Tiger’s snotty sniffles hijacked the broadcast.

The best woofing peaked early, on the very first hole, when Mickelson badly misread his birdie putt to lose a $200K side-bet that he would birdie the hole.

“Good speed,” Tiger said, with spectacular understatement. But Phil never met his gaze, and the moment petered out.

The worst-case scenario for this whole shebang was for Woods to struggle early, putting him in full grind mode, and on cue he yipped a short putt on the second hole and started spraying shots off the tee. There had been some exquisitely awkward small talk down the first two holes but Woods reverted to his true self, brooding on his own. Phil was left to chat with rules official Mark Russell and anyone else who strayed within earshot. Mickelson was hitting it nicely but looked spooked on the greens, and most of his early patter was him and his brother/caddie Tim discussing the state of his putting.

The single most exciting moment of the front nine came on the par-3 7th hole, with its $200,000 closest-to-the-pin side bet. Woods went first and came up well short of a back-right pin, his ball rolling backward to 40 feet. Mickelson hit pretty much the same shot, and as his ball trickled back the slope the suspense was delicious. His shot expired a couple feet closer to the hole than Tiger’s, earning an ignominious windfall.

With lackluster golf and minimal interaction between the protagonists, the telecast badly needed other elements to keep viewers engaged/awake. Coming in, there had been lots of talk that the broadcast would feature cutting-edge technology, but all we got was a gambling expert to break in on nearly every hole with updates about the action from the Vegas sports books. Since I hadn’t made any of those bets it was hard to care. In desperation, studio hosts Charles Barkley and Samuel L. Jackson were piped in, leading to a lot of painful yukking and one moment of clarity from Sir Charles, who pronounced the caliber of golf as “crappy.”

This was the fundamental problem with The Match: it was sold as spectacle but in the end turned out to be just two golfers playing golf. The back-nine finally got interesting when all the hokey side bets and pre-written tweets receded into the background and it boiled down to two proud champions fighting hard to not lose. Woods finally found his swing, winning the 11th and 12th holes to take a 1-up lead and then hitting a strong tee ball on the tough par-3 13th. But Mickelson answered with a gorgeous shot that never left the flag and he then nudged home the 9-foot putt to square the match.

Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, The Match
Mickelson defeated Woods on the 22nd hole, then accepted a cash prize and gold belt buckle.

Phil kept hitting quality shots – he described his perfect drive on the par-5 16th as a “tasty little morsel” – and Tiger blinked first, making an ugly bogey from the center of the fairway to lose the 15th hole and then babying a 12-footer that could have won the 16th. But Woods produced a badly-needed signature moment by chipping-in from behind the green to steal the 17th hole. After a fist-pump he intoned to his caddie Joe LaCava, “Just like old times, buddy.”

So they went to the 18th all-square, and the tension was exquisite. It harkened back to something Mickelson said earlier: “It gets a little quieter on the back nine, doesn’t it?”

Woods made a strong two-putt birdie and then channeled his inner-Nicklaus by conceding Mickelson a three-footer for birdie, leading to sudden death. It should have ended on the first extra hole with a vintage Tiger birdie, but he missed an 8-footer on the low side. Suddenly, what had turned into a tense match devolved back into spectacle. The finishing par 5 was converted into a 93-yard par 3 played under the lights, which was as much of a letdown as deciding the World Cup on penalty kicks. On the third try Mickelson finally ended the tedium by making a birdie. It’s a shame the finish was so underwhelming, because for a while this cheesy production had finally gotten real. Even on a laptop.