The Game Within ‘The Match’

Tiger and Phil?  No, the real action was in the sportsbooks

For months the golf world was abuzz about The Match:  A pay-per-view event on Black Friday from Las Vegas pitting a resurgent Tiger Woods against his longtime rival Phil Mickelson for nine million dollars.  The event was played up like a boxing match, with official rules about side betting and a pre-match press conference that looked an awful lot like a weigh-in.

Once the event began, it became clear that Tiger and Phil’s match was not really about golf.  Instead, The Match was an introduction to the sports gambling world on the biggest day it has had in America.  Several states had sports gambling laws that just happened to go into effect on the same day.  Make no mistake about who the true intended audience was.  The event was aimed at sportsbooks, off-track betting sites, and the thousands upon thousands of Americans who put a little action on sports through websites.

The cast of the event should have given this away, in hindsight.

Phil Mickelson has long been known as an unapologetic gambler, starting with his many appearances on the Dan Patrick Show where he described his betting in detail in the early 2000s.  Because his endorsements and PGA TOUR winnings put him at over $100,000,000 of income per year in his prime, Mickelson always had money to throw down and he has done it on and off the golf course in a way that has become a critical part of his story.

Tiger Woods’ exploits in casinos, card games, and on the golf course are done away from the eyes of the public, as one would expect of a man whose yacht is named Privacy.  Still, it isn’t hard to imagine that he is familiar with betting.  Those friends of his that we know about include Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley, themselves no strangers to gaming action.

Barkley was even a part of the event itself.  Sir Charles, who at one point gambled so much as to put himself in serious financial trouble, was one of the broadcasters for the Bleacher Report and Turner-led pay-per-view.  He even agreed to a bet himself, putting up $200,000 against Justin Verlander of the Houston Astros for his own score on the first hole.  Because the event ended in extra holes, and after sunset, we never got to see Barkley play that hole.

Early in the round, it seemed as though there would be little entertainment value, at least not in the way the event was billed.  Woods and Mickelson may be rivals, and they may have moments where each is sick of the other, but they seemed to respect one another too much for the kind of trash talk that some were hoping for.  The side bets, billed as a fun addition to The Match, simply underlined how rich both people were.  When hundreds of thousands of dollars are spoken about like chump change, it’s hard for the rest of us to identify.  Even the nine million dollar purse seemed to be of nothing more than mild importance to the competitors.

An event removed from the regulation of broadcast television might have seemed tempting, but rest assured the two most polished golfers since Jack and Arnie weren’t going to start working blue.  Tiger, who was once reprimanded for swearing on television, only muttered a light handful of expletives after shots that did not go well.  Mickelson’s persona is similar to a father on a sitcom, so of course he wasn’t going to let a dirty joke fly just because it’s pay-per-view.  Problematically, this sanitized take was strange for an event very much grounded in an adult activity.

There used to be an event somewhat like this on Thanksgiving Weekend every year.  The Skins Game was a meeting of four notable golfers, often including major champions and decorated winners.  Every hole had a monetary value attached.  If there was no winner, the total would carry over.  At the end of the round, the player with the most money was the winner.

This event used to take place over two days, and that timing is likely what did it in.  The final day of the Skins Game was over the weekend, one where football is an unstoppable force.  Either hold it on Saturday against some of the most celebrated college football rivalries, or hold it on Sunday against the NFL as it turns to critical late-season action.  That doomed the format to obscurity, and once the PGA Tour began to try to change the event it only got worse.  Seniors and LPGA notables got involved, but the product did not improve.

The era of Woods and Mickelson also did not lend itself to the event, and we saw why on Black Friday.  The Skins Game was a loose event, with golf’s notables taking gentle potshots at one another while competing for skins.  Jack Nicklaus, who was a sly trash talker when he wanted to be, liked to take part.  Payne Stewart would sometimes get distracted by football scores, as his love of the game was part of his story.  There were theatrics, mind games, and lots of laughs.  When Tiger was ascendant, golf became a little less friendly, and the Skins Game became outdated.

The tide may be turning back now.  So much of the young tour is friendly with their competition, so much so that they take vacations together and rent houses together for major championships.  Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, and Justin Thomas in a Skins format?  Yes, please.

Such an event would even have a better jumping-off point, with a wide open day on the entertainment calendar the night before Thanksgiving.  An annual event that would make for gentle background noise while family gets together and decompresses from a long day of travel would clean up on that Wednesday night, and a Black Friday finale would draw in a nice audience up against celebrated but less popular college rivalries like the Egg Bowl and the War On I-4.

The entire broadcast centered on gambling.  On every hole, we saw how many people bet on each outcome and what the odds were.  Knowing that much of the audience was not well-versed in the activity, there was a fair amount of explanation on what “+240” meant.  At times it would not have been out of place for a Muppet to arrive and explain in full Sesame Street detail how to gamble on a golf event.

In terms of filling the entire allotted broadcast time, the event was a success.  Tiger and Phil went to extra holes, including a “20th hole” made just for the match, one small enough to light after the sun set.  On the first go-round, Woods conceded a putt to Mickelson that would have been a challenge in the lighting.  The second time, Mickelson did the same, saying “I don’t want to win that way” to great applause.  The third, there was a clear winner, with Phil Mickelson taking the purse with an advantage in side bets to boot.

It’s fitting that Mickelson would win The Match.  Tiger is either the best or second best golfer to ever play the game depending on how you measure it, but a match play event centered around gambling was very much Phil’s turf.  He has played well in Ryder Cup events more often than Woods, and betting is a passion for Lefty.

Phil seemed more comfortable than Tiger Woods could have.  It seemed like he knew every single attendee, greeting several by name and a few with a hug.  Even when Woods offered a bet on the sixth hole that Mickelson turned down, the playful exchange seemed somewhat forced.  That should have been expected.  Phil might have played plenty of friendlier matches with action on the side, but that competitive focus from Woods suggests that he approaches the game differently.  He would not try to get in his competitor’s head.  His finest moments from the event were those where he and caddie Joe LaCava stopped for a moment to regain confidence.  It was enlightening to hear Tiger hype himself up, because it’s something we never got to hear before.

As the holes dwindled along with the light, more odds flashed across the screen.  We got an idea of how many people might have lost money on the event not ending in seventeen holes or fewer, and how many people might have won when the golfers reached the artificial 20th hole.

Mickelson won the bulk of the side betting.  He also won the nine million dollars.  The real winner at the end of the day were the sportsbooks just opening across America.  Black Friday’s strange golf event, the Skins Game that Wasn’t, started a lot of bookies off in the black.

Tim Williams has been covering sports since his days as a student at Northeastern University covering events such as the Beanpot. In the thirteen years since, he has covered college hockey, the NFL, Major League Baseball, the PGA Tour, and the National Hockey League. A native of the Tampa Bay area, Tim has returned home after living much of his life in the northeast, including sixteen years in the Boston area. These days the Managing Editor of Sports Talk Florida can be found on Florida's golf courses when he's not working.