The first clue that golf’s initial foray into pay-per-view would be different was this opening salvo from – ahem – Samuel L. Jackson.
“It’s golf, man,” the actor and Capital One pitchman said dismissively, just minutes into the pregame show for the highly anticipated duel between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. “How excited can you be?”
Viewers likely were left with the same impression of The Match, a 4-hour, 56-minute made-for-TV event that included a Mickelson victory, a few vintage shots, garrulous broadcasters, heavy mouth-breathing, cheesy conversation starters, a gimmicky playoff format, a few innovations and, surprisingly, even less trash talk.
Perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise that this first clash of the titans was clumsy, because it’s been that way from the outset. Originally intended for July 4, it’d take three more months before the deal was finalized. And once it was, some of the details were off-putting, from the price ($19.99), to the exclusivity of the event at glamorous Shadow Creek in Las Vegas (limited to a few hundred VIPs), to the minuscule charity component (side bets only) for two living legends who have a combined net worth of more than $1 billion.
The rollout Friday was just as sloppy. After months of social-media kvetching that the 18-hole match would be pay-per-view only, Turner executives decided to allow free streaming of the event after the purchase function on the Bleacher Report Live platform failed. Those who stuck around were treated to some lackluster play and a broadcast that was alternately cringe-worthy and suspenseful. Billed as a spectacle, The Match ultimately devolved into two aging warriors who battled for 22 holes, the last three under the lights on a makeshift, 93-yard hole that was only missing a windmill.
“I just want America to know this has been some awful golf,” the always blunt Charles Barkley said at one point. “This is some crappy golf.”
The entertainment value wasn’t much better.
After promising an uncensored look inside their (one-sided) rivalry, both Woods and Mickelson seemed overly aware that they were mic’d for sound. They didn’t need to put on an expletive-laden show to be compelling, of course, but the game’s preeminent needlers were so tame that this match could have been shown on PBS. In fact, they almost seemed as if they ran out of things to say by the time they walked up the first fairway (“Speaking of cool …” Tiger painfully segued), so they didn’t see much of each other the rest of the way. Woods mostly kept to himself, lost in the competition; on many holes Mickelson chatted up PGA Tour rules czar Mark Russell or simply sounded out of breath.
Even Mickelson admitted that they’d probably strayed from the event’s identity.
“I’m trying to be more talkative,” he said, “but I’m just not this back nine.”
“No, I understand,” Woods said. “We got back into our old mode of trying to beat each other’s brains in.”
With four hours of airtime to fill, and two participants who were grinding harder than anticipated, the broadcast teams (Ernie Johnson, Peter Jacobsen, Darren Clarke and Shane Bacon; host Adam Lefkoe, Pat Perez, Barkley and Jackson) felt compelled to talk … and talk … and talk, oftentimes at the expense of viewers who wanted to eavesdrop on precious player-caddie conversations. The more seasoned members of the crew should have known the power of laying out.
Granted, they didn’t miss much. Mickelson woofed in the pre-match presser that he had a few tricks to get under Woods’ skin, but for some reason he didn’t employ them Friday. He had some golden opportunities to stick it to his longtime rival early, including after Woods’ 3 ½-foot par miss on the second hole, but Mickelson cheerily strode to the next tee and later praised Woods’ iron game. Woods, too, could have stepped in to provide some much-needed levity, after Mickelson left his 10-footer short on 5. But not a peep.
One of the only lively exchanges came on the seventh hole, when Mickelson, about 40 yards shorter off the tee, asked for 3-2 odds on a $100,000 side bet for low score on the par 5. The notoriously frugal Woods didn’t bite.
“I want to see some more smack; I want to see some more betting,” Perez complained.
The handful of side bets they had were predictable: closest-to-the-pin contests on par 3s and a long-drive contest on a par 5, leading to some forced interactions. Once the match got tight late, neither Mickelson nor Woods issued a challenge or attempted to use any mind tricks on their opponent. For players with their extreme wealth, it seemed strange to have so few wagers. It felt like a regular match, not some game-changing entertainment product that will supposedly put regular-season PGA Tour events on notice.
The telecast incorporated a few interesting elements, including drone shots, roaming cameras and live odds after holes were completed, but some of the ShotTracer flights appeared as though they were drawn by hand, and there was no TrackMan data to show viewers clubhead or ball speed.
The end felt gimmicky, too: Rather than play the par-5 18th over and over again, tournament organizers set up a 93-yard par 3, under the lights, off the practice putting green, the lies so tight that Woods teed up a lob wedge. It eventually set up a winning moment that can be neatly used in highlight packages – Mickelson knocking in a 4-footer on the fourth extra hole – but the execution was awkward, with a long wait to cut a new cup on the 18th green, a hole yardage the players would never practice, and generous concessions that evoked memories of the 2003 Presidents Cup.
“I’m just trying to calm down,” Mickelson said afterward, standing in front of the $9 million in cold, hard cash. “My heart can’t take much more.”
The ultimate measure of success for this event will be how many people paid for the $19.99 PPV or streamed the event online (to their surprise, for free). Made-for-television matches are nothing new, from Challenge Golf to the Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf series to the Skins Game to Monday Night Golf. But even with Woods as the face of the Monday Night franchise, those events lost their appeal and disappeared from the silly-season landscape.
Sure, The Match had some promising moments – namely the mic’ing up of players, a mysterious and exclusive host venue, and as dramatic of a conclusion as you’d hope for between two players with more than $200 million in on-course earnings – but the challenge moving forward will be finding any combination of stars that once again is worth the price of the pay-per-view.
Do Tiger and Phil continue to compete against each other, even as their skills decay?
Do they team up to face off against bash brothers Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka, or some other formidable duo?
Do they add undercard matches – Jordan Spieth vs. Patrick Reed! – to help fill some of the airtime?
To Samuel L. Jackson’s point on a golf PPV: How excited can you be?
Those are questions for Woods and Mickelson to answer, because this wasn’t just some one-off in Sin City. This was supposed to be the start of something much more enduring, but it’s not yet clear if The Match has staying power.