Las Vegas exists to distort reality, whether briefly enough to separate cocksure gamblers from their chip stacks or long enough to market a bejeweled Liberace as every housewife’s dream. So it was with The Match, in which two men who share a genuine antipathy circled each other like a pair of chummy middle managers at a company holiday party, exchanging compliments that made up in diplomacy what they lacked in sincerity, and betraying nothing more belligerent than an eye-roll.
Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka conducted themselves as any two strangers randomly paired for a Friday game might, piloting separate carts and saying little beyond “Nice putt” and “That’s good.” The last time Vegas witnessed two high-profile men be so taciturn about their common business, Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky were running the Strip.
As a result, Phil Mickelson was forced to work overtime in the Don King role of promoter, carnival barker, oddsmaker, antagonist and announcer. He was his typical self, alternating between delightful and insufferable, depending on how “figjammy” he was feeling. All while clad in shades that suggested he was aiming for Tom Cruise’s look in Top Gun, even as he sounded more like Cliff Clavin in Cheers.
The venue was Wynn Golf Club. The adjoining hotel has 2,716 rooms, and chances are there were more engrossing affairs happening in most of them Friday night. Yet The Match was instructive on many fronts.
So what did it teach us?
That… personal feuds don’t necessarily make for compelling golf spectacles. This is not a contact sport, and seldom even a contentious one. DeChambeau and Koepka gamely imitated prizefighters with pre-bout sniping, but no shots were fired inside the ropes. Any poking was so subtle as to pass almost unnoticed, like when Koepka yelled “Fore!” as his opponent’s tee shot sailed toward an adjoining and totally unoccupied fairway.
That… The Match is less a platform for competitors than a vehicle for Mickelson, who gleefully gabbed his way through every second of airtime the players left unfilled. He’s a skilled performer, delivering the needle and leavening it with the appropriate amount of humor. His commentary is often hugely insightful, at least when he doesn’t detour into TED talks to demonstrate his expertise on every subject known to man.
That… Charles Barkley remains an engaging, entertaining voice, even if the product he’s covering falls flat. He’s self-deprecating, inquisitive, unfiltered and wholly without artifice, and was the only man at The Match of whom that can be said.
That… the PGA Tour’s legacy of prim image-maintenance is blunting its product. Tour brass have a low bar when it comes to conduct unbecoming and for months wanted the DeChambeau-Koepka feud to die. In the end, all that was required to kill it was commercialism, just enough for golf fans to suspect (wrongly) that the entire spat was stage-managed. But why did the showdown have to be someone else’s commercial boon? In 2021, eight Tour stops had both DeChambeau and Koepka in the field. Sponsors that have shown the Tour years of loyalty—AT&T or Travelers, say—could have enjoyed the exposure of pairing the bros. The Tour ensured that did not happen. Too many executives in Ponte Vedra will see this as a dodged bullet and not as a missed opportunity.
That… the Tour was only comfortable embracing the feud when its most animated fan base had already moved on, convinced it was manufactured. A DeChambeau-Koepka pairing would have been destined to lack conflict since most rounds on Tour are five hours of silence interrupted by occasional smalltalk about football, fishing or creeping socialism. And that’s only if the players like each other. Yet the Tour chose to let the feud fester rather than risk energizing a boorish spectator element for two days. It hardly needs stating that this is not a fan-forward approach.
That… on a holiday weekend—particularly on a cold, blustery one in many parts of the country— there is an audience for televised golf, even if this one numbered more people hate-watching than usual. Millions of dollars were raised for charity, and the fact that nothing meaningful was at stake (save the egos of two prideful men) did not diminish my gratitude for the distraction, regardless of its ultimate entertainment merits.
And finally, that… if Mickelson really wants to deliver a golf spectacle on the Vegas Strip with guaranteed fireworks, one based on real grudges and boundless animosity, he should face Billy Walters.
Published at Golfweek.com, November 28, 2021.