Will Tiger Woods vs. Phil Mickelson Give Golf a New Source of Swagger?

Tom Weir@@tomweirsportsFeatured ColumnistNovember 21, 2018

A chance to win $9 million has brought Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods together.
A chance to win $9 million has brought Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods together.Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

One of Phil Mickelson's most enduring quotes definitely won't be repeated Friday when Lefty and Tiger Woods square off for their $9 million, winner-take-all showdown in Las Vegas.

To wit: "The object of golf is not just to win. It is to play like a gentleman, and win."

Ha. Rampant smack talk and the promise that golf's traditional genteel behavior will be chucked into the nearest water hazard are the most compelling selling points for Capital One's The Match: Tiger vs. Phil.

In exchange for the $19.99 pay-per-view fee, the advance hype has assured we are in store for more needling than a head-to-toe acupuncture treatment. Both players and their caddies will be miked up throughout, and I, for one, am hoping that Caddyshack-like antics will arise.

Tiger ramped up the mind games last week during an appearance on Inside the NBA, when he was asked if he can get inside Phil's head. "I've been in Phil's head for 20-some-odd years," Tiger said, without hesitation.

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Tiger Woods joins Inside the NBA to preview next week's The Match: Tiger vs. Phil https://t.co/8tgLwXJRBl

Mickelson has countered with an anecdote about the cunning way he messed with the Tiger-Tony Romo team at the 2012 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am by dining with the former quarterback the night before the tournament. Mickelson also is threatening to perform The Worm if he wins. (Which should probably worry all of us.)

The acrimony might seem a bit fabricated, but the match's sponsors are literally banking on one of golf's core truths to drive viewership: The vast majority of golf fans are either a Tiger follower or a Phil loyalist, and that division has been the game's most energizing rivalry for two decades.

It's almost as if the handlers of Tiger and Phil had a mutual epiphany over the summer and said, "Hey, maybe golf should be more like boxing."

Boxing owes its seat on the pay-per-view throne to its iron grip on theatrics, whether it's unlimited trash talk, skirmishes at weigh-ins or the occasional chomping of an ear. Boxing also could give the IRS lessons on how to grab the cash. The fight game proved that conclusively in 2015, when Floyd Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao generated about $500 million for a lackluster brawl in Vegas between two men well past their primes.

Sound a bit familiar?

Like Mayweather and Pacquiao in 2015, Tiger and Phil have ranked as their sport's marquee names for years, and now it's time to go for golf's biggest one-round payday before the opportunity slips away. (And also before they have more tarnishing debacles like their combined 0-6 showing at the 2018 Ryder Cup.) 

Mickelson and Woods shared some Ryder Cup misery this year.
Mickelson and Woods shared some Ryder Cup misery this year.Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Even if they flub their lines Friday or the hostilities seem contrived, one of them will profit mightily. But what if the competition is solidly entertaining and the verbal sparring yields fresh insight into the prickly side of their rivalry?

Golf fans tend to be militantly loyal to their sport, monumentally so when Tiger is part of the equation. If the Tiger-Phil show hits the mark and yields the best look yet at these two personalities, there will be an appetite for more.

Amazingly, two of the naysayers for The Match are young superstars Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas. McIlroy has chided the event for being 15 years too late, and Thomas has said he'll be watching football instead in a since-deleted tweet.

Financial advisers for those two must be having fits, because McIlroy and Thomas are the last people on Earth who should throw shade on Tiger vs. Phil. If the one-on-one format succeeds, it probably won't be long before golf's booming cast of young stars gets pay-per-view invitations. Why roadblock their own potential revenue streams?

Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy could eventually benefit if Tiger vs. Phil sells.
Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy could eventually benefit if Tiger vs. Phil sells.Chris Carlson/Associated Press

Jordan Spieth vs. McIlroy in The Match II would echo the transatlantic animosity that accompanies the Ryder Cup. The oft-snarly attitude of Patrick Reed and his Captain America persona are made for a mano-a-mano matchup with just about any other star. Brooks Koepka has the necessary swagger, and Rickie Fowler has the appropriate charm.

That's not to say Tiger vs. Phil is a perfect concept. If they were playing for $9 million of their own cash, instead of sponsors' money, this truly would be must-see television.  

What it boils down to is whether they can sell the show. Which, on the day after Thanksgiving, may be tough for a pair of 40-somethings. There won't be a major championship at stake, and it remains to be seen whether they can bark at each other meaningfully for 18 holes.

The X-factor likely will be their side bets, with much of the winnings expected to go to charity. Cash will change hands for small victories like longest drive, closest to the hole or longest putt. And what if Mickelson presses Woods for a $1 million bet? Don't think it can't happen. There are epic stories about Lefty's penchant for gambling.

Initially, I was with McIlroy in thinking this is an event for a different era. But I warmed up to it after watching HBO's prelude special, 24/7 The Match: Tiger vs. Phil.

In it, Tiger beams with confidence when he says, "It's not only the amount of money, but it's that I'm going to take it off Phil. That makes it even better."

Mickelson addresses the anticipated intensity when he says: "Will there be swearing during the match? S--t yeah. There's always swearing with Tiger, whether it's pay-per-view or not."

Mickelson also expresses the joy he felt when he stopped Tiger's six-tournament PGA Tour winning streak in 2000.

"It always feels good to beat him. Whether it's for a win, a top-10, or 50th place."

Tiger had the duty of helping Phil put on his green jacket at the 2006 Masters.
Tiger had the duty of helping Phil put on his green jacket at the 2006 Masters.MORRY GASH/Associated Press

They both also share stories about the joy of winning the Masters and having their nemesis tasked with helping them on with the green jacket.

A green jacket won't be at stake in this match, but plenty of green will be. And I can't wait to hear one of them trash the other for winning a match by the historic score of $9 million to zero.