Tiger Vs. Phil: A Rivalry Only in Vegas

Only in the city that promoted Mayweather-McGregor as a fair fight and Liberace as a sex symbol could Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson be considered rivals. “The Match” is fresh evidence that Las Vegas can distort any reality just long enough to separate a rube from his billfold.

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Woods and Mickelson may rank first and second respectively in PGA Tour wins among active golfers, but that in itself doesn’t constitute a rivalry. The defining head-to-head matchup in any sport is born of ferocious competition in marquee events that matter. It is a battle, if not of equals then of near equals.

Neither of which is true in Woods vs. Mickelson.

At worst, Woods is the second greatest player of all time. Mickelson has had a standout career and ranks among the game’s finest players. But he never measured up to Woods.

In the decade-plus of his prime, Woods didn’t have opposition that caused him concern, except perhaps his own body or hubris. The few men who did present brief, faint challenges — Ernie Els, David Duval, Vijay Singh — all lack the one attribute Vegas demands and that Mickelson possesses in excess: showmanship.

Their Nov. 23 match isn’t required viewing for everyone. Asked last week if he’ll be watching, Rory McIlroy didn’t sugar coat it.

“No,” he said. “If they had done it 15 years ago it would have been great, but nowadays it’s missed the mark a little bit.”

Of course, 15 years ago Mickelson hadn’t won any majors and had even less standing as a rival for Woods, but there was at least a perceived animus between them that would have fueled a showdown. Today, even that is gone, replaced by a jocular ease familiar among legends who have nothing to prove, and not enough game to prove it if they did.

Despite Rory’s assertion that “The Match” misses the mark, it is an oddly accurate reflection of golf’s present reality: Its two biggest stars are closer to the senior circuit than to their primes; there hasn’t existed a credible rivalry in more than 20 years; and fans long starved of a meaningful faceoff in Augusta in April will happily feast on a buffet of make believe in Nevada in November.

None of this is to suggest that “The Match” is entirely without merit. Golf course architecture enthusiasts who pay $19.99 to watch will save $479.01 on the usual door charge to see Shadow Creek.

It’s also comparatively cheap entertainment, relative to the $100 that 4.3 million people parted with last year to watch Mayweather toy with McGregor for 10 rounds.

The real value of “The Match” is in blueprinting the vast scope that exists within golf for in-round gambling. Not just between players but on the scenarios they face. For every competitor there exists a deep reservoir of data — his average leave from all distances, his make percentage on putts of any length — that represents a wealth of predictive information. Incorporating that into every golf telecast, not just this one, would be manna for gamblers and considerably more engaging for casual viewers.

To that extent, Woods and Mickelson are almost irrelevant. A couple of journeymen from the lower orders could illustrate just as clearly the potential angles for betting in golf. But who better to entice the bettors than Mickelson?

One can’t fault Lefty for promoting this exhibition with the fervor of an evangelist touting salvation. His time as a major contender is increasingly distant in the rear-view mirror, so relevancy must come now from the personal branding and fan goodwill he has generated over the past quarter century. Whether pitching dress shirts or pay per view, Phil, Inc. is a formidable enterprise, and his impish humor and mastery of trash talking will ensure that viewers get their money’s worth.

The more entertaining “The Match” is, the more it becomes a reminder of what fans were denied from Tiger and Phil over two decades worth of majors. HBO’s preview show dwelled on flaccid tales about their long-ago joshing during a pro-am at Pebble Beach for one reason: there was no iconic U.S. Open shootout at Pebble Beach to focus on instead.

There is nothing at stake at Shadow Creek, save personal pride and $9 million neither man needs. It’s an artificial prizefight between two aging veterans whose most memorable clashes happened outside the ropes. That’s a reality even the Las Vegas carnival barkers can’t alter.

Golfweek, November 18, 2018.

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