The reports that Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods will play a made-for-TV match in Las Vegas around Thanksgiving weekend is terrific. It will prove less than nothing about the strengths and weaknesses of both players. It will be absent of real tension or any type of personal jeopardy. But it will draw a very healthy viewing audience. It is also bound to be far more entertaining than too many overpriced pay-per-view boxing matches in Vegas, between two past-their-prime fighters looking for one more pay day. It’s my hope that this match is a precursor to what should be a barnstorming tour, with Phil and Tiger taking on all comers in better-ball matches all over the country.
Exhibitions were once a big part of the tapestry of professional golf and they should return. Matches pairing Phil and Tiger against the likes of Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed in Dallas; Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler at Bears Club; Rory McIlroy and Justin Rose at Adair Manor, should be booked. The notion that these two one-time adversaries could suddenly partner together off a one-time money match against each other on a turkey/football weekend may seem to be a reach.
The climate is ripe for the two biggest stars in the electronic and social media era to write a final competitive chapter of their estranged rivalry. However, the fervor for a Tiger-Phil mini-series will be green lit not by Vegas, but by every competent television programmer, because of the pilot or the sequel – pick one – that should simply be referred to as “We will always have Paris.”
United States Ryder Cup captain Hal Sutton pairing Mickelson and Woods in the Friday morning four-ball at Oakland Hills, in 2004, didn’t appear to be as historically awful as Hershel Walker being traded to the Minnesota Vikings or the Boston Red Sox selling Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. I know, at the time, they appeared to be about as compatible as Jack Walsh and Jonathan Mardukas in “Midnight Run.” Woods, at 28, had been crushing the PGA Tour for almost five years and Phil, then 34, had just broken through that April for his first major win at the Masters. To paraphrase John Winger in “Stripes”: Come on, its Oakland Hills, we zip in, we pick up a couple of points and we zip out. It’s not like going to Augusta National. Sadly, the discomfort began with the pairing announcement at the opening ceremony, when Phil wrapped his arm around a less-than-cozy Tiger.
The previous three Ryder Cups, from 1997 to 2002, featured both men on the U.S. side, but the idea of THE pairing was a non-starter. Sutton is a righteous man, but his decision to pair these two at the 35th Ryder Cup was rooted in giving fans of the game what they wanted. The two best players draped in the stars and stripes, curbing egos and personalities for a common cause. Years later, Mickelson explained that the failure of the pairing, in his estimation, was much more about a lack of preparation and time together than it was about camaraderie. A pair of losses on Friday by Woods and ended the experiment, and in a bizarre way, subjected Sutton to a life in low sensibility golf jail.
This coming September, three men are going to finally grant Sutton the well-deserved parole he should have never needed for simply trying to give the game a gift.
When I asked current U.S. captain Jim Furyk, in June, about the idea of a Mickelson-Woods rebirth in Paris, Furyk responded with these sarcastic words: “Yeah, because it worked out so well the last time around.” From a straight-shooter like Furyk, that could have killed the dream of the coming together Red Shirt and Mr. Button Down. Well, captain, I’m not buying your dismissal. I’m a sappy sentimentalist, blended with my desire to have Sutton remembered more for “Be the right club today” and not the urban cowboy hat overseeing an ambush by Europe in Motown. Eradicating that blight on U.S. Ryder Cup history is a start, but there are so many more reasons why this pairing will happen at the 42nd Ryder Cup matches.
A year ago, Mickelson was bringing the curtain down on another winless, albeit productive, season. Woods was removed from tournament golf and his biggest concerns had nothing to do with getting reps, rather just trying to get healthy and lead a normal life as a single dad. Mickelson made the Presidents Cup team, but he clearly is in the twilight of team golf. Tiger had embraced the team concept, but it was as a vice captain and it kept his mind occupied while his body was not yet cooperating.
As the days dwindle down to the first cutoff, with the eight automatic qualifiers joining the U.S. team at the conclusion of the 100th PGA Championship, the idea of both men being playing members has gone from a nice nostalgic thought to a stone-cold mortal lock. Here is where golf’s full lunar eclipse starts to align and has me convinced that this will not only be kicked around by team USA, but put in motion in the outskirts of the City of Lights.
When millions of golf fans saw Mickelson and Woods warmly embrace at the conclusion of the 2017 Presidents Cup, it optically signaled that golf’s big thaw was more than underway. The white-hot competition between the two men had cooled. Golfing mortality appeared real for both and age softens most of us, so we can appreciate more and grind a little less over big and small things. As the new season started, Tiger was a giant question mark in the game, while Phil’s last Tour win at the 2013 Open.
Phil answered loud and clear with his win at the WGC in Mexico. Tiger responded with his second-place finish the following week at the Valspar – and then a fourth-place showing at The Players and near-miss at The Open. Both men will be competing, one way or another, so the first practical hurdle has been cleared. However, you have to go back to the first full week in April when I entertained the idea of a Paris bromance.
Woods historically prepared for majors in solitude during his salad years. Mickelson entertained himself with money matches with the younger generation. So the sight of the two of them playing together at Augusta National in preparation for the Masters sent the golf Twitterverse off its axis. Phil was showcasing his new line of button-down golf shirts and maybe they were stoking the embers of their November cash grab in Vegas. Moreover, the early rounds pairing at The Players allowed them to playfully spar a little bit through the press without channeling their best Conor McGregor-Floyd Mayweather pre-fight gas bagging. The willingness of both men to become quasi-business partners selling a TV event is a departure, but the Vegas event is a sideshow – the Ryder Cup pairing is the main event.
All great brands remain great brands, because they never let up. They always remain in your consciousness and evolve to stay appealing. The willingness of Woods and Mickelson to potentially right the Oakland Hills wrong is perfect for both men, now and for their futures. Woods is currently cheered for, not just revered for being a golfing deity. Mickelson understands what sells and he’s an ideas man. Phil’s mental unraveling at the U.S. Open position him conveniently for a subtle cleansing. By being willing participants and pairing up, they show leadership and that they are good teammates.
Also, consider for a moment the younger generation on the U.S. side who watched the 2004 Ryder Cup as pre-teens. Spieth, Thomas and Brooks Koepka would feel like they were supporting actors in a sequel nobody thought would ever get made. Then there is Furyk. Woods and Mickelson have a great relationships with the captain and they can make him look like the ultimate decision-maker on a pairing that should be seen as a huge win for golf. Most sports fans will be focused on Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and when will Baker Mayfield start for the Browns? But the Ryder Cup gets mainstream traction and this headline will help pull the sled with even more people on board. It also lays the groundwork for them to be captain and vice captain for each other in future Ryder Cups and be the faces of USA golf as leaders and legends with a common cause.
As for what’s to lose, absolutely nothing. This is not the ill-perceived dream team of 2004, when theirs scalps appeared to carry the weight of the whole side. A Woods and Mickelson defeat will not crush the psyches of the rest of Team USA and a win will be a massive source of pride for the two men and their team room.
Ask Jack Nicklaus and he will adamantly contend that the Ryder Cup is an exhibition and it’s about the spirit of the game and good sportsmanship. Certainly, plenty has changed since his first Ryder Cup in 1969, when he made the famous concession to Tony Jacklin on the closing hole of their singles match at Royal Birkdale. It’s also about television, and Tiger and Phil can turn some heads from football to golf – particularly with the time difference. Finally, it’s the historical bow that the two men can put on their legacy as team players in an age where team golf is consumed with a greater fervor.
Great players of past eras curbed ego and personality to come together for a common goal and many times it produced victories. Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer were not teammates on a U.S. Ryder Cup team until 1971, thanks to absurd eligibility requirements. They finally got their chance at Old Warson Country Club in St. Louis, the same city that will host the 100th PGA Championship. The pairing of the two biggest stars in the game won their Friday afternoon four-ball match, 1 up, over Peter Townsend of England and Harry Bannerman of Scotland. However, it was hardly the first time the two had paired together representing the USA in team competitions. On four occasions, Nicklaus and Palmer wore the red, white and blue to victory in the World Cup with 1963 being the first time … in Paris. Oui!
Tiger and Phil always seemed so wrong. Now? It seems all right.