News & Opinion

Don’t zone out yet on Woods-Mickelson

Two past-their-prime superstars squaring off for a $9 million, corporate-funded jackpot in a pay-per-view challenge match on the busiest shopping day of the year, smack-dab in the heart of football season? Who’s providing the halftime entertainment at this pillow fight? Wayne Newton?

OK, so Tiger Woods vs. Phil Mickelson isn’t exactly stacking up as must-see TV. A fair number of serious golf fans have made it a point to tell me that they have no interest in watching, and when the $19.99 viewership fee was announced a couple of weeks ago, I didn’t get a sense that millions of Americans suddenly began second-guessing the idea of spending Black Friday jostling for position at the local Best Buy.

Easy to pick on, easier to dismiss. The fact that Tiger + Phil = 0 points at the Ryder Cup six weeks ago didn’t make this thing any easier to sell, and frankly, it defies logic to think anyone would
drop 20 bucks on two guys whom they’ve watched dozens of times before in tournaments as important as this event is meaningless.

You don’t have to pay for “I Dream of Jeannie” reruns. Why on earth pay for this?

Because you never know. Because Woods and Mickelson have never even pretended to be buddies – at least Tiger didn’t – and now that this bromance has gotten airborne, it could be interesting to observe their interaction over the span of an afternoon. Are they really pals now? Are they just mugging it up for the national audience? If they’re going to needle each other, does it come off as real or scripted, contrived or conniving?

In May 2002, I was interviewing Woods in the players dining area at the Byron Nelson Classic when Mickelson approached our table with a tray of food and a goofy grin. He didn’t wait for an invitation from Woods before joining us for lunch, and for the next 20 minutes, I was privy to a rare back-and-forth between the two best golfers of their generation.

Never has a golf writer felt so delightfully invisible. Woods and
Mickelson would end their awkward summit with a wager on the NBA Finals, which were still a month away. Tiger took his beloved Los Angeles Lakers, leaving Phil stuck with whoever emerged from the Eastern Conference, which turned out to be the New Jersey Nets.

I’ve always wondered whether Mickelson ponied up the $100. If not, Woods has a little credit heading into the match Nov. 23 at Shadow Creek in Las Vegas.

And that’s how next week’s bout actually could become a worthwhile investment to viewers. If the two men allow themselves to indulge in some legitimate side action, betting $500 of their own cash on a 10-footer or playing the par-3 17th for an extra $10,000, that would be interesting. That said, this whole concept would have been a ground-breaking, runaway smash if it had been rooted in the pockets of two of the world’s richest athletes.

When you start getting sponsors involved and charge people to watch it, however, you turn a daring, unprecedented venture into a tired old cash grab. Woods and Mickelson are stepping into the batter’s box facing an 0-2 count, but that doesn’t mean they can’t hit it out of the park. It’s all about the tone and direction of their discourse, whether it’s fake or authentic, and where that small talk leads us.

Perhaps you recall the “Showdown at Sherwood,” which featured Woods vs. David Duval in August 1999 and earned ABC a whopping 6.9 Nielsen rating, making it one of the most-watched golf events that year. The difference between ’99 and 2018 is that Woods and Duval clearly were the world’s two best players at the time, giving it an Ali-Frazier type of feel that can’t be mimicked or manufactured.

Of course, that big audience meant the idea had to become an annual occurrence, but in terms of measured viewership, ratings disintegrated after the second year. Woods himself basically euthanized the series after he and John Daly were clobbered by Mickelson and Retief Goosen in 2005, and an attempt to revive the series with a pay-per-view platform seven years later was a bit of a disaster when streaming issues heavily affected U.S. access to a Woods-Rory McIlroy stroke-play bout played in China.

What does the past have to do with next week? Probably not a whole lot, but then again, not without a certain element of irony. Woods’ involvement guarantees at least significant interest, but the premise of a man-to-man matchup against Mickelson is probably 10 years too late to break the bank. I’ll be watching because it’s my job to do so, and from small expectations, big things sometimes emerge.

It’s one of those times when being wrong would be a good thing. A hell of a lot better than duking it out over some half-priced tablet at Best Buy.

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: johnhawkinsgolf@gmail.com