News & Opinion

Woods-Mickelson duel needs reality check

The idea of an 18-hole challenge match between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson has been brewing for several months now, albeit on a back burner, since the two men hooked up for a practice round at the Masters and were paired together at the Players five weeks later. All had gone quiet until Mickelson recently told’s Alan Shipnuck that a nationally televised, July 3 meeting for $10 million in Las Vegas couldn’t be finalized.

“We’re working on a different date,” Mickelson said last week. “I thought it was done for the third, but obviously it wasn’t.”

So, there’s a lot to digest here, notably the size of the purse and the winner-take-all format. Given that a major TV network and corporate sponsorship is said to be involved, did Mickelson unwittingly sabotage the proceedings with his antics during the third round of the U.S. Open? Not only did Lefty strike his ball before it came to rest on the 13th green, but he claimed afterward that he’d done it for strategic purposes.

Subsequent vilification of Mickelson was intense, perhaps the harshest he has endured in his 26 years on the PGA Tour (“Mickelson, USGA disgrace U.S. Open,” June 17); (“Mickelson’s legacy: ‘Slappy Philmore’,” June 22). He would apologize for his behavior in a text message to reporters a few days later, which seemed to reprise the notion that he hadn’t been honest about his initial intentions.

If you’re Woods, do your sharpest business minds really want you spending several hours on prime-time TV with a guy who is tap-dancing under a dark P.R. cloud? If you’re a network executive, don’t you suggest to Mickelson’s people that you wait until the fall to play the match, hoping a significant percentage of golf’s viewing population will come to terms with how irresponsibly Lefty acted at Shinnecock Hills?

The problem with doing something stupid, especially when you’re famous, is that you can’t make it disappear with a mere apology. People don’t forgive and forget that easily. And when you start self-promoting a match that will pay out $10 million in somebody else’s money, you’re holding your public image very close to the fire.

Mickelson needs to back off. Someone should explain the lay of the land to him: that time eventually will heal the damage, that finishing among the eight qualifiers for the U.S. Ryder Cup team (he stood 10th on Sunday) and playing well in France would go a long way toward repairing the damage. And if he still wants to square off against Woods in October, he can knock himself out … under one crucial premise.

Mickelson and Woods must play for their own cash. Not for a $10 million chunk of some marketing budget or in a three-hour commercial for Charles Schwab. There are enough game shows on TV already. The people involved in this project would do well to understand the difference between winner-take-all and loser goes home millions lighter.

To be fair, Mickelson hasn’t made it entirely clear how the prize money would be generated. Perhaps it will come from their own pockets, which was the only real point of intrigue when Lefty began barking about an actual match during Players week. If it turns out to be another corporate cash-grab, it’s a tired old idea. Woods participated in numerous competitive versions of the concept from 1999 through 2005.

Perhaps Mickelson has forgotten that he played in the final three installments of that series, “Battle at the Bridges,” which didn’t come close to producing the ratings of Woods’ earlier matches. When Woods said he wanted out, the idea immediately died. Thirteen years later, with both superstars clearly past their primes, one can understand the reluctance of an ABC or Fox to make such a heavy investment on something that had been trending in the wrong direction.

“We’ll play for whatever makes him feel uncomfortable,” is basically all Woods has said about the matter. It’s a very interesting way of sizing up things. Play for your own dough? That ain’t no game show.

John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: