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Champions for Charity another step forward in golf's gradual return

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The PGA Tour may still be three weeks away from resuming tournament play, but the sport will take another star-studded step toward returning to competition this weekend.

Last week’s TaylorMade Driving Relief match featuring Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler and Matthew Wolff marked the first live televised golf since the Tour entered a competitive hiatus in March in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. This weekend it’ll be another four-man outing with the Champions for Charity match, albeit with only two Tour members.

Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson will go head to head at Medalist Golf Club in Florida, 18 months after their initial duel in Las Vegas. But this time they’ll be joined by a pair of NFL quarterbacks past and present, with Peyton Manning joining Woods and Tom Brady pairing with Mickelson.

Like last week’s match at Seminole Golf Club, charity will be a key component to Sunday’s competition. More than $10 million is expected to be donated to coronavirus relief.

And just as golf fans saw when McIlroy and Johnson teamed to defeat Fowler and Wolff in a skins match that extended to a 19th hole, a unique format will once again be on display. The match at Medalist will be split into two nines, with the front featuring best-ball competition and the back nine utilizing modified-alternate-shot format.

Manning and Brady may be elite on the football field, but they’ll need some help to keep pace with Woods and Mickelson in a best-ball format. As a result, both quarterbacks will be given shots on three front-nine holes: one par-3, one par-4 and one par-5. But the modified alternate shot over the final nine holes won’t provide any such cushion for Manning, who plays to a 6.4 handicap index, or Brady with an 8.1 index. All four players will tee off on each hole, with Manning and Brady playing from a forward tee, and teammates will alternate after choosing the better drive.

Manning on 'Tiger,' 'Phil' code names for offense

Manning on 'Tiger,' 'Phil' code names for offense

While the quarterbacks will look to provide a few highlights with their clubs instead of their arms, much of the interest will focus on their two decorated partners. Most Tour players have been out of action for nearly three months, but Woods’ hiatus extends a month longer. The reigning Masters champ hasn’t played since finishing last among those who made the cut at the Genesis Invitational on Feb. 16, clearly plagued by injury issues that led him to skip three subsequent events, including The Players. 

As a Medalist member, Woods will have home-course advantage and revenge on his mind after Mickelson edged him in their 2018 match in Vegas. But there are still questions to be answered by his southpaw counterpart, as Mickelson is now less than a month away from turning 50. Mickelson was hit or miss during 2020 before coronavirus halted play, mixing missed cuts with a pair of T-3 finishes. But he’s been staying busy recently in California, playing regular practice rounds with area pros like Xander Schauffele and Charley Hoffman.

As for the team arrangements, the dividing lines were rather apparent. Woods and Manning have played together often over the years, teaming in five pro-ams including each of the last two years at the Memorial. Manning once shared that when he was leading the Indianapolis Colts, the team’s no-huddle offense included a snap-count call where “Tiger” meant hiking the ball on 1 and “Phil” meant hiking the ball on 2.

“We’d say it a lot. ‘Tiger, Tiger,' 'Phil, Phil,’” Manning said. “Tiger was on 1, and Phil was on 2. Tiger always liked that. He could hear it. I think he liked the fact that Phil was on 2 a lot as well.”

Their partnership means Mickelson will be joined by Brady, who recently moved to Florida after signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It's a duo that continues to successfully battle Father Time, with Brady about to enter his 21st NFL season and Mickelson still hitting bombs past players half his age.

As with last week’s televised showcase, there’s sure to be some rust on display as players look to return to competitive form – and it likely won’t be limited to the play of the quarterbacks. But another chance to promote the game with a significant charitable aspect will be embraced by fans across the country, and it signals another important element of progress as the Tour inches closer toward a return to full-fledged competition after an unexpected hiatus.