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PGA Tour, NFL icons raise bar for hit-and-giggle golf

The Match Champions for Charity 18th green
Phil Mickelson (from left) and partner Tom Brady lose to Peyton Manning and Tiger Woods, 1 up, on Sunday in ‘The Match: Champions for Charity’ at Medalist Golf Club in Hobe Sound, Fla., but as the oversized check indicates, there was a bigger winner.

Tiger Woods and Peyton Manning edge Phil Mickelson and Tom Brady in a spirited event that raises $20 million for coronavirus relief and just might be the best televised golf exhibition ever

Color me shocked.

Last weekend’s charity golf match at Seminole between Rory McIlroy and friends was unwatchable, devoid of chatter, personality, drama and pace. It got an “A” for “awkward.”

I expected more of the same when I was sentenced to watch “The Match: Champions for Charity” on Sunday afternoon at Medalist Golf Club in Hobe Sound, Fla.

Instead, I tumbled on to maybe the best televised golf exhibition ever, even better than those old Skins Games with chatterbox Lee Trevino or the one in which Fred Funk lost a bet to Annika Sorenstam and donned a skirt, and as Funk squatted to read a putt, Tiger Woods swooped in behind to help, saying in perfect deadpan, “It’s two balls out.”

Maybe it’s my desperation for live sports talking – and it never hurts to have Woods playing – but Champions for Charity is the new gold standard by which TV golf exhibitions are measured. It makes me wonder whether this might be the future of golf, or the future of televised sports? Fast-paced exhibitions with cameras and microphones everywhere to bring viewers up-close-and-personal with the players, especially if they’re icons such as Woods, Phil Mickelson and football’s Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.

Woods and Manning held on to beat Mickelson and Brady, 1 up. It beat the heck out of four hours of first-round coverage of any regular PGA Tour event.

Champions for Charity was delayed 45 minutes by a southeast Florida rainstorm, but by the time Mickelson hit iron off the first tee and missed the fairway – a bad sign of worse things to come – this TNT show already made me forget The Snooze at Seminole.

This show was a delightful mix of trash-talking, camaraderie, competitiveness, comedy, self-deprecation and celebrity-announcer interaction.

If a show can thrive during a 45-minute rain delay before it gets off the ground, it’s going to be good. Reporter Amanda Balionis walked the range and elicited chat from all four competitors, and it wasn’t the same old stuff. She got Manning to say he wondered whether he could get in Brady’s head by getting Bill Belichick, Brady’s former New England Patriots coach, to caddie. Brady said that wouldn’t have done it, but with the rainy conditions, Brady said jokingly, “This is the kind of day you want to hand the ball off.”

She asked Mickelson about his putter, one he hadn’t used since 2012, when he had it in the bag, shot 64 and beat Woods to win at Pebble Beach. “It has been known as the Tiger Slayer,” Mickelson said. “I brought it out for this event.”

Ooohh. Interesting. A tease.

Some other things I liked:

The cart cams: Each player rode in a cart with a camera, and each player was mic’d and could converse with the announcers. This idea was so good that it made me wish for players to use carts in actual PGA Tour events. There was something compelling about riding in the cart with Woods as he drove off after the first tee, tugging his shirt, straightening his belt buckle, pulling a glove out of his pocket while holding the steering wheel with his other hand. Technical difficulties kept Woods from hearing a question asked by the announcing crew, but who cares? We were in the cart with Woods, a new experience, and it was a great visual when the cart was moving. We were in the cart with all of them, and it was cool. I want more.

The intros: First, actor Jamie Foxx voiced a well-done match preview. Then, actor Samuel L. Jackson did the tee introductions, via the Internet, and provided just the right mix of humor and hype. He called Woods the GOAT of golf (Greatest Of All Time) and praised Manning for “shooting more commercials than I’ve made movies, and that ain’t easy.”

Jackson also introduced Brady, of the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, as representing the city of Tampa Bay, Fla. There’s no such place, Mr. Jackson. There’s Tampa, the city, and Tampa Bay, the body of water. That’s OK. Jackson has the voice and the delivery that we never tire of hearing.

Sir Charles: Barkley proved once again why he’s more than just a basketball savant. He’s smart and funny and, looking back, was this telecast’s life of the party.

Barkley, after Woods hit a beautiful drive off the second tee: “I would love to do that just one time…”

After Thomas said he’d love to see Barkley’s fat (expletive) dunk a basketball right now: “You can’t call me fat on TV, J.T. That’s bullying. I’m gonna call H.R.”

After Mickelson completed a long explanation – at Thomas’ request – of how he was going to play a pitch shot: “Everybody has an annoying friend who’s really, really smart, and you ask him something simple and he gives you a brain-surgery answer.” (Footnote: Mickelson did exactly what he said and nearly holed it.)

After Woods cut a nice drive into the seventh fairway: “That looked just like me.” Laughter. “I meant, we’re both black.”

Who else but Barkley gets away with that?

I wouldn’t mind if Sir Charles would be added to, say, the regular CBS golf crew.

Phil being Phil: Mickelson has a good sense of humor and always has been a self-promoter. On the third hole, where the longest drive was worth a big bonus, Mickelson tried to talk trash with Woods after working several mentions of a sponsor, Workday, into the conversation. Then, Mickelson turned into every other golfer who hit a wayward drive when his shot sailed left. “No, no, no! Hit the cart!” he shouted.

That’s like you or me yelling for our ball to hit a tree, because that’s our only hope of it staying in bounds.

The ball disappeared into the palmettos, but after a few moments, Mickelson said someone down the fairway gave him the “safe” sign.

Woods said jokingly, “Somebody from Workday must’ve thrown that ball back in.”

Then, after Woods crushed one down the middle, Mickelson chuckled and said, “Sorry, Workday.”

Another mention. He definitely earned his corporate bonus.

The Quarterback Club: When this match was announced and Manning and Brady were included, I lost any interest in it. Two quarterbacks who probably were going to gag under pressure on national TV while saying little of interest sounded like a bomb. How wrong I was. Manning was glib and funny.

When Manning got his third shot onto the second green, he got back into his cart and told Barkley, a notably bad golfer, “That’s more like it. Everything I think about is, What would Charles not do?

Brady survived a humiliating start that featured multiple penalty strokes. He didn’t look like a deer in the headlights; he looked like a deer under the front fender. He flared shots into hazards, chunked some, duffed a chip shot and looked lost. He and Mickelson fell behind, 3 down, on the front. Moments after Barkley badgered Brady about getting strokes and setting up a match with him, Brady holed a 150-yard shot from the fairway at the seventh.

“Suck on that, Chuck,” Brady said.

A sudden rain squall arrived without warning at the 13th green, and Brady, preparing to chip, quipped, “Hey, when’s the heavy stuff supposed to come?”

It was all good fun, and entertaining. Plus, there were some good shots. Mickelson pounded a drive 330 yards over the trees and onto the back edge of the green at the par-4 11th hole. Brady holed the putt under the alternate-shot format for eagle.

The big story, though, was Woods. He swung easily, with tempo, and drove it on a string. He looked like the player who won last year’s Masters, not the player who shot 76-77 and barely made the cut at Riviera two months ago. The time off clearly helped his back.

With the first major championship, the PGA, a little more than two months away, Woods looks as if he's ready for anything. Sunday, he was ready to put on a good show for coronavirus relief.

It was just what America needed.

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