News & Opinion

Next time, maybe Barkley should play

It was meaningless golf taken to a whole new level, a steep decline from the Skins Games of the 1980s and challenge matches featuring Tiger Woods in his heyday. There were times when it was hard to watch and even more difficult to hear, as the seven men assigned to call the event repeatedly drowned out the competitors, both of whom were wearing microphones, neither of whom had much to say.

Of course, it’s tough to talk trash when you’re missing greens with short irons and squandering virtually every scoring opportunity outside 8 feet. Ultimately, that’s what made Friday’s “The Match: Tiger vs. Phil” such a profound bust.

Less than two months after performing so listlessly at the Ryder Cup, failing to score a single point for the country that made them rich and famous, Woods and Mickelson displayed the same error-prone form that left them a combined 0-6 against the Europeans. With their shortcomings at Le Golf National as a backdrop, the concept of two aging superstars playing for a $9 million, winner-take-all jackpot came with a risk as large as the preposterously sized reward.

In that context only, they didn’t disappoint. Despite an unusually calm autumn afternoon in Las Vegas, despite playing Shadow Creek Golf Course from tees several hundred yards shorter than its peak length, neither player birdied a par 4 on the front nine. Mickelson won four holes in regulation, three of them via Woods bogeys. Woods did stage a brief “rally” with birdies at the 11th and 12th holes, and his clutch chip-in for a 2 at the par-3 17th was, by any degree of estimation, the only memorable shot of the match.

That’s it for the highlights. Woods basically gave away both closest-to-the-pin challenges on the front-nine par 3s; neither shot ended up within 40 feet of the flag. On the longest-drive challenge for $100,000 at the 14th, both players drove it into a fairway bunker. Five holes earlier, with $1 million on the line if someone could eagle the short par 4, Woods and Mickelson were left fighting to salvage par, at which point former NBA star Charles Barkley blurted the line of the telecast.

“You know, America, this is some crappy golf,” the Chuckster quipped without a nanosecond of trepidation. “I could beat both these guys today. I’m serious.”

Get the picture? If not, lucky you. When Mickelson finally defeated Woods with a 4-footer for birdie on the 22nd hole, this ill-conceived idea was mercifully laid to rest. A giant sigh of relief
pre-empted any shrieks of joy, perhaps because this bake-off took five hours to complete and still didn’t produce anything close to appetizing.

All of which validates the instincts of many serious golf fans who were outraged that Turner Sports would charge $19.99 to watch Tiger vs. Phil. Just before game time, however, it was as if the golf gods intervened, as technical issues with the pay-per-view format prompted cable/satellite carriers to stream the match for free.

Go ahead and say it. Those late poachers still got ripped off.

In a statement issued Saturday night, Turner confirmed that it would offer a full refund to those who paid for the event in advance.

The problem involved a paywall, or the actual gateway that leads to viewing access, which is of absolutely no interest to anyone reading this. “We just didn’t want to make it a negative consumer experience,” a source at Turner told me, perhaps unaware that charging people to watch two guys whom they’ve seen hundreds of times for free wasn’t a stellar idea in its infancy.

No question about it: Black Friday was a rough day for Turner. Its production of the match was heavily flawed, its selection of on-air talent reflective of a network that doesn’t take golf seriously. Barkley? OK, he’s TNT’s lead comic and by far the most recognized voice on its NBA coverage, and his golf game is so famously bad that it actually made sense to have him running his mouth at every opportunity.

Sir Charles was part of the “pregame” desk team that also included PGA Tour pro Pat Perez, actor Samuel L. Jackson and host Adam Lefkoe. Jackson was there because he does commercials for the event’s title sponsor, which is about as cheesy as TV gets. Perez, normally one of the straightest-shooting players I’ve ever met, drank way too much network Kool-Aid and was heard saying some pretty ridiculous stuff as the match neared its end.

“This is what everyone has been waiting for!” Perez chirped as Woods and Mickelson began playing a makeshift 93-yard par 3 under the lights, by which point 93 percent of the audience probably had moved on to watch “Wheel of Fortune.” Pun intended.

The pregame gang’s biggest problem – and it was a massive production glitch – involved Lefkoe’s constant updates on the betting lines, which continued throughout the match and were more fluid than the Kool-Aid. Numbers such as “Mickelson +275, Woods -140” would appear on the screen, followed moments later with something like “Mickelson -180, Woods +225.”

Not once during the five hours were these prospective wagers explained, and unless you’re a relative of the late Jimmy the Greek, you probably had no idea what you were seeing. A quick user’s manual: In the first example above, a successful $100 bet on Mickelson would make you $175, whereas you had to bet $140 on Woods to clear $100.

In other words, everything works off Benjamin Franklin, who bears a striking resemblance to Mickelson but never made $9 million to shoot a couple under par.

This lack of clarification on what became a focal point of the telecast is unforgivable. Turner obviously decided to make the gambling element a big deal, but its attempt to break uncharted ground turned up nothing but clay. Numbers which the network considered relevant were utterly meaningless. Who cares that Woods was 0.1 strokes better than Mickelson on par 5s this past season?

Long story short: We were fed 10 pounds of style for every 3 ounces of substance. Ernie Johnson is one of the best studio hosts in the history of sports TV, but his weaknesses as a golf anchor were plainly obvious at Shadow Creek. Neither Darren Clarke nor Peter Jacobsen has the tools to carry a lead desk, especially at a made-for-TV event so intent on thumping its own chest.

Clarke was the strength of the trio – clearly prepared for the assignment and concise in his analysis. Johnson spent too much time babbling about his experiences as a weekend hack and was over the top when extolling the visual beauty of Shadow Creek, a course that very, very, very few golfers will ever get a chance to play.

All that said, nothing was going to save this project if Woods and Mickelson played pedestrian golf, which was undeniably the case. Turner would have been much better off scratching all the aforementioned personnel, ditching the bells and whistles, and just having on-course reporter Shane Bacon follow the two men around with a cooler full of beer.

I might even send out Barkley with his golf bag to provide an occasional blast of levity. At that point, $9 million might be worth more than a red cent.

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: