Since golf magazines are the first rough draft of history, what to make of The Match? Phil Mickelson was indisputably the winner, vanquishing Tiger Woods in not-so-sudden-death, but the larger meaning of this spectacle is still up for grabs. The cheesy trappings — $9 million in cash sitting on the first tee, Charles Barkley gasbagging at the mic, a playoff settled under the lights — did little to change the mind of those who had decided in advance it was an ill-advised TV game show running contrary to the spirit of the gentleman’s game. At the same time, the taut, well-played back nine, along with Woods’s brooding intensity and Mickelson’s goofy star power, validated the notion that this was a fun, out-of-the-box idea that could become a staple of the golf calendar. And the multi-platform, flood-the-zone presentation of The Match — complete with real-time updates from the Vegas sports books — was, depending on your bent, either a shambolic mess or a cutting-edge glimpse of the future of sports media. So what’s the final verdict? For better and for worse, all of the above. The question that interests me more is where do we go from here? The most heavily criticized element of The Match was the decision to offer it only as a $19.95 pay-per-view. But on Black Friday, the technology broke down and the show’s distributors, Bleacher Report and TNT, wound up giving away The Match for free, an embarrassment that turned into an unwitting goodwill gesture. The optics of pay-per-view weren’t helpful for what was already a decadent idea, but Mickelson, always the smartest guy in the room, presented pay-per-view as purely an aesthetic decision: “I think we were able to break the old-school mold of a telecast presentation. I’m curious to see how some of the drone shots and [us wearing] mic’s and the roaming cameras, I’m curious to see how that turned out, because it’s all about creating a better viewing experience for the viewers as we continue down this road with sports.” Indeed, what The Match was selling more than anything else was intimacy, and we got it, right down to Tiger’s snotty sniffles and Phil’s mouth-breathing. Woods got off to a shaky start and began grinding like it was Sunday at the U.S. Open, putting the kibosh on the needling and banter that had been promised. (“I got lost in the competition,” he said. It was meant as an apology but really was the highest of compliments.) Still, there were just enough interesting, inside-baseball conversations to leave no doubt that it’s only a matter of time until players and caddies will be wearing microphones at every PGA Tour event. And five hours of live sports with no commercial interruptions turns out to be nirvana for fans.
The Match also validated golf as a superb vehicle for betting. The average tournament is four long days of continuous action, with every hole offering a plethora of possibilities for wagers. And all that ShotLink data isn’t just for Mark Broadie to nerd out on. The Match was the first step in normalizing what has long been whispered about in Ponte Vedra Beach: The imminent legalization of sports betting is going to be a bonanza for golf. But what is the future of The Match itself? There have been many polls asking golf fans what they want to see next — perhaps a Spieth-Reed death match, or a Dustin-Brooks battle to see who can use fewer strokes and words across 18 holes. But these hypotheticals miss an essential point: Tiger and Phil own The Match by way of an LLC, and they get a chunk of the TV money, merchandising and corporate sponsorships. So they are going to be part of The Match until they start playing all of their golf at the Villages. That doesn’t mean the format won’t be tweaked. More voices and more action would be helpful, so expect partner-play next. Tiger and new BFF Justin Thomas vs. Phil and Jordan Spieth would be great fun. Or how about a Ryder Cup preview of Woods and Mickelson vs. Rory McIlroy and Ian Poulter? Tiger/Lexi vs. Phil/Wiesy? Yes, please. Options abound. For all of the skepticism that surrounded this winner-take-more exhibition, what ultimately redeemed the thing was the palpable desire that both Woods and Mickelson displayed to beat the other guy. Nine million bucks is nice, but some things are priceless. As Phil said to Tiger on the eve of The Match, “Every time I see you, I want to be able to rub it in. I don’t want it to be rubbed in. I want to sit in the champion’s locker room in Augusta and talk smack. I want that.” In the end, he got it. And the rest of us got to go along for the ride.