How Tiger and Phil missed the mark — over and over

LAS VEGAS — An obscene amount of money, a pay-per-view offering and a showdown between a couple of aging golf stars drew plenty of interest in the lead-up to The Match on Friday at Shadow Creek.

No matter where you stood on the long-discussed, winner-take-all, $9 million encounter between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, excellent golf would be necessary to carry the concept, an exciting back and forth of eagles and birdies with the longtime legendary rivals outdoing each other.

That didn’t happen.

Certainly not to the degree that was hoped or needed.

Mickelson prevailed in darkness on a makeshift hole played three times, finally converting a 4-foot putt to win. It was a bit of a bizarre end to a day that had its moments — just not enough of them.

The five-time major champion who desperately and jokingly wanted to prevail to hold some measure of gloating over his longtime nemesis won four holes in regulation — three when Woods made a bogey.

Both players missed very makeable putts in what turned out to be a four-hole playoff — three of them on a 93-yard hole where floodlights were used to continue the action.

“Couldn’t hit it with a lob wedge,” Woods lamented. “Twice.”

And so it went.

Despite driving the ball “like a stallion,” Mickelson said — Woods covered his eyes and chuckled — he could not take advantage of Woods’ shaky start, holding a 1-up lead at the turn that could have easily been three or four holes.

At one point, former NBA star Charles Barkley, who was part of the broadcast team, bellowed, “You know, America, you’re watching some really crappy golf.”

Never mind that it was a worldwide broadcast, and that Barkley — who suggested he could hang with Woods and Mickelson on this day — is as awful a golfer as he was a great basketball player.

It was an outlandish overexaggeration, but the bottom line was the golf was just not that compelling, especially on a beautiful course where earlier in the week Mickelson suggested the winner would need to shoot “63 or 64” to win the match. As it turned out, both players shot 69 on the par-72 course.

Yes, there was some decent banter between Woods and Mickelson, but it was nowhere near the needling that we were led to believe would occur. As the match wore on, both players reverted to the grinding mode that has served them well for the past two-plus decades.

“It’s amazing how quiet it gets on the back nine,” Mickelson said.

Even for guys who make $40 million-plus in off-course income per year, $9 million for one day gets your attention. And they are competitive, part of the reason they’ve been so successful.

But there just were not enough “Wow!” shots. Woods drew even when he got up and down for a birdie from just over the short par-4 11th hole, then held his only lead when he knocked an approach shot stiff at the 12th hole to go 1-up. But Mickelson came right back to birdie — his only won hole with a birdie until the last one — giving you the sense that perhaps the closing holes would produce the fireworks.

But then Woods bogeyed the 15th — his third of the day, leading to a Mickelson win. A match sorely lacking drama got some when Woods chipped in for a birdie at the 17th. Mickelson was in position to close out the match, but after Woods made his birdie, Lefty couldn’t match and they were all square.

The truth is, Woods appeared rusty and far less motivated to play at his best in a match that Mickelson made no secret about wanting to win.

“In the big picture, nothing is going to detract from the career and accomplishments he’s had,” Mickelson said of Woods. “For me to have a little something on him like this means a lot to me.”

Mickelson jokingly made it be known to Woods that he’d bring up this victory whenever he saw him, not to mention wear the gaudy belt that was also presented to the winner. Woods had to sit there and take it.

“I felt so much pressure these last couple days as we had the buildup to it, from hole one,” Mickelson said.

To that end, Mickelson spent considerable time at Shadow Creek in recent weeks, including most of this week. Woods practiced at the course only before a news conference Tuesday. He noted that he began ramping up his preparation only a few weeks ago, after taking a much-needed break following a successful PGA Tour season that saw him win the Tour Championship, his 80th career victory.

“I’m still trending on the way upward, trying to get myself sharp,” said Woods, who will compete in the 72-hole Hero World Challenge next week.

For the event to be compelling, Woods needed to have more of his game on display. He missed a relatively short putt on the second hole, then began to spray a few drives. That sent him into a mode of working to figure it out instead of one of confidence.

At the end, both champions were fighting hard not to lose, and that might have been the most interesting part of the proceedings.

Whether this happens again will depend on various technical issues being worked out and the appetite for such a competition.

But for there to be long-term success, such an event needs Tiger and Phil to be … well, Tiger and Phil.

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