Sunday 15 September 2019

Tiger Woods vs Phil Mickelson: ‘The Match’ is a shameless act even by Las Vegas standards

Phil Mickelson (left) and Tiger Woods (right) pose for a photo during a press conference before The Match. Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Phil Mickelson (left) and Tiger Woods (right) pose for a photo during a press conference before The Match. Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Tom Kershaw

It’s been two decades since Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson first shared a bet. Two fresh-faced twenty-somethings wagering a humble $100 on their practice round at the Nissan Open in Los Angeles. As folklore relays, Mickelson, who ran out victor that day, photocopied the winning bill and stuck it on Woods’ locker with a note: “Just wanted you to know Benji and his friends are very happy in their new home.”

Nineteen majors, 123 PGA Tour wins, and an accrued $2.5bn later, and the pair step off their private jets in Las Vegas. First, it’s to the press conference in the type of seedy cigar room where the stench of old booze and body odour is impossible to differentiate, businessmen compare the size of their cocktails, and the blueprint for such an odious event was mapped out.

Woods and Mickelson sit affront a sea of CapitalOne logos – the event’s official sponsor – where the pack of pandering journalists wait on their every word. Woods, never quite comfortable with the camera, or most of humanity, sunken into his seat a little deeper as if embarrassed by his overbearing friend spouting off like a midnight teleshopping salesman with hollowed-out circles for eyes.

It’s about more than money, Mickelson reminds you, before betting $200,000 on the first hole. Definitely not about suckering profits in Vegas’ backstreets like a Black Friday mugging, he assures, while posing in front of a plethora of banknotes like a suaveless Escobar incarnation.

Instead, it’s about settling their bitter rivalry, Mickelson insists. A chance to finally get one-up on the man to whom his record reads like a boxing journeyman. It’s about “bashing each other’s brains in,” Mickelson continues, weeks after Steve Loy – his agent – claimed the only reason the pay-per-view monstrosity was possible is “because Phil and Tiger have become damned good friends.”

Mickelson pushes the promise of in-play bets and bonus offerings like a lady of the night on Sin City’s sidewalks – the odds, of course, conveniently provided by MGM Resorts Race & Sports Books, the owners of Shadow Creek Golf Club. He dodges questions asking whether the $9m “winner-takes-all” prize is little more than a gimmick considering there is already a joint-entity shell account in their names lathered with millions beyond that paltry half-round. The omnishambles continuing as the soulless salesman unflinchingly declares that the event “only benefits the interest in the game of golf. It’s a glimpse into the future of sport.”

And then in one of golf’s most absurd moments, Mickelson and Woods go in for a boxer’s nose-to-nose type face-off. The media providing a collective gasp as though Mickelson might suddenly launch into a flying headbutt like an intoxicated father at his son’s ‘soccer’ meet, only for reality to set in as the duo burst into fits of giggles, completely beside themselves at the prospect of pulling off such a blatant act of posturing.

So it’s on to the putting green at Shadow Creek Golf Club for a few more prized photographs. The exclusive host of this carbuncle. A country club which prides its reputation on turning away presidents, prime ministers, professional events and now spectators too. “The Match” will be a 7,200-yard behind-closed-doors exhibition event taking place 15 minutes away from the Vegas strip.

The two players will arrive in limousines provided by MGM, as will the commentary team: Samuel L Jackson starring on pre-show duties, former LPGA star Natalie Gulbis ditching her ‘MAGA’ t-shirt and Trump hat to take the reins for the in-game froth like a glamorous table dealer.

With no commercials to break up the middle-aged toddle from tee-to-green, drones will scythe through the sky and sparrows to capture aerial montages of the course and hone in on giant MGM logo like reminding an addict of the hot rock of heroin on offer.

There is a gentleman’s code amongst professional golfers not to publicly criticise one another, but along with the likes of Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas, even noble humanitarian Tommy Fleetwood couldn’t help but malign the conscious-free carousel.

‘Well don’t watch it then’, bawl Woods’ passionate crevice-dwellers. Well, at least if there is to be one saving grace of this toxic greed, it’s that the amoral quasi-slop being auctioned at $19.99 – ironically the same number of cents required to define the year this exhibition might actually have been of interest – will be free-of-charge for viewers in the UK – provided you already have your Sky Sports subscription, of course.

Around 100 miles west in Southern California where both Woods and Mickelson were raised, another pair of Californian PGA Tour pros are also preparing to take part in a one-off event, except with a purpose other than lining the pockets of pernicious casino fat-cats.

2017 FedEx Cup Champion Xander Shauffele and four-time tour winner Charley Hoffman will play a fourball "Wishbone Brawl" match where under-18s can enter for free, walk and talk on the fairways, even receive a free workshop from the players and all the proceeds will go to local children’s charities – a point which Woods and Mickelson’s match has so unashamedly missed.

So at least somewhere, there is a small sliver of integrity left in the sport as its two biggest stars attempt to blunder and bury it in a crevasse of elitism and impossible vulgarity.

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