• Jonathan Brannan

IS 'THE MATCH' THE FUTURE OF GOLF?

Updated: Jun 2, 2020

This article was originally published on November 28th, 2018.


November is normally a month of hibernation for golf. There are events for golf lovers, but for most golf moves quietly into the sports background.

This Thanksgiving weekend, however, we witnessed golf take a risk and experiment with its format.


Two of the sports best players faced off in "The Match."

The Match placed Tiger Woods against Phil Mickelson. Credit: thewrap.com

Concept

"The Match" was expected to be one of the greatest draws in the history of golf. Golfing icons Tiger Woods (@TigerWoods) and Phil Mickelson (@PhilMickelson), playing for $9 million, in a winner takes all event.

The concept for "The Match" began with a hypothetical question between two Hollywood friends, CAA’s Jack Whigham, the agency’s co-head of motion picture talent, and one of his clients, Bryan Zuriff, a Hollywood producer.


Whigham envisioned a concept for a golf event that would be "played the way a lot of us play with our buddies on the weekends? You know, where you bet on everything and talk smack and basically have this continually running dialogue of, pardon the expression, giving each other shit."


Zuriff took inspiration from “The Skins Game” that has occupied the Thanksgiving weekend in the past. Running from 1983-2008, as an unofficial-money event on the PGA Tour. The event would see four golfers invited to played to win individual holes or "skins" in a match play format. With each hole being assigned different monetary values and the golfer who won the hole with the best score outright won the money for that hole.


The Skins Game did not just promise big rewards for players. It delivered big TV ratings for broadcasters. In 1986, it was the highest-rated televised golf tournament, beating out The Masters.


For the first ten years, the Skins Game’s would average 5.65 million viewers, topping that of the U.S. Open during that time.


Fred Couples was even given the nickname of "Mr. Skins" because of his dominance at the event. With five wins and five runner-ups in eleven appearances.

Idea to Reality


There where a number of obstacles for Whigham and Zuriff to overcome before "The Match" became a reality.


The PGA Tour became Whigham and Zuriff's first stop. As "The Match" needed to be signed off, before progress could be made.


The second step was bringing in marketable players. Fortunately, Zuriff was friendly with Mickelson through their membership at The Madison Club in La Quinta, California. They were later able to present the idea to Tiger Woods' management.


The obstacles started to become easier for Whigham and Zuriff, after securing the players. As they now had Tiger Woods, who sells with reputation and popularity, and Phil Mickelson, who is the showman.


Nick Khan, co-head of television for CAA said, "Tiger Woods was in hibernation because of injuries, but now that you see him out of hibernation, you see the crowds and the TV ratings that go along with that, and those are the same crowds and ratings that he generated before his injuries. If he stays healthy and he has the right platform, he’ll continue to have the force of a superstar.”


Khan had been brought on to help negotiate a media deal for "The Match." A number of organizations expressed interest in securing the rights. Comcast, which owns NBC and Golf Channel, and CBS Sports, in order, had the first crack because they are the U.S. rights holders to the PGA Tour’s tournament broadcasts. When each passed, it appeared ESPN was in line for a July 4 show.


That gave way to Turner, which was part of AT&T’s purchase of Time Warner, which recently cleared federal regulatory hurdles. The Match was the first true deal for Turner president David Levy as part of the new WarnerMedia conglomerate, and Levy threw not only the massive resources of WarnerMedia into the pot but also the requisite amount of cash.


“Given what we knew, we saw this as a unique event with global appeal, and, rightly, there was a lot of interest,” Alan Gold, head of media advisory at CAA said. “Ultimately, our job was to get the best deal for the players.”

Gold added “This is a next-generation type of deal that incorporates everything from pay-per-view to premium cable to mobile and OTT … it just hasn’t been done before.”

AT&T made "The Match" available for on pay-per-view for $19.99, to tune into the intriguing experiment.


Capital One also joined in, taking the title sponsor of the event. Naming the event "Capital One’s The Match: Tiger vs. Phil."

The Money


As the event had organized broadcasting rights and sponsorship, the prize pot was announced to be $9 million.


The original hyped number was $10 million. However, that was reduced when the PGA Tour got involved. As the Tour’s premier event the FedExCup has always won a grand bonus payout of $10 million. With the winner only receiving this after a season of a strong play that is continued through three playoff events.

Mickelson mentioned, "It's a ridiculous amount of money. No matter how much money you have, this amount will take both of us out of our comfort zone.”

"The Match" become the biggest single-day or single-tournament payout, for a golf event. The winners of the other events on the PGA Tour, don't receive vastly reduced prices. The following highlights what the winners receive in other 2018 events:


  • U.S. Open — $2.16 million of $12 million purse

  • Masters/PGA Championship/The Players — $1.98 million of $11 million purse

  • British Open — $1.89 million of $10.5 million purse

  • WGC Championships — $1.7 million of $10 million purse

  • CJ Cup $1.71 million of $9.5 million purse


Along with the winnings, it was announced that Woods and Mickelson, would be making side bets throughout the event. Both players allegedly, putting their own money up for these wagers. Mickelson predicting before the event that the total amount bet will get into seven figures and maybe into the $2 million range. These winnings will be going to charities of their choice.


In the days leading up to "The Match," it received much backlash from players and the European press. The sentiment is that it was a grotesque indulgence and that the celebration of the money surrounding the competition was tasteless.


Sir Nick Faldo (@NickFaldo006) mentioned, "When they put that photograph out of both of them caressing nine million we were left going 'hang on a minute, this is not our sport'."


Yet the backlash managed to stoke people's interest and got "The Match" trending on social media.

The Match


However, after months of hype and anticipation, we finally saw the two best golfers of their generation face off on the first tee, at Shadow Creek in Las Vegas.


“I love this whole concept, and these two guys, who are the biggest names in our sport, trying to ramp up interest in golf in a unique way,” added fellow PGA Tour player Pat Perez, making his broadcasting debut beside the likes of Charles Barkley and actor Samuel L. Jackson, on the pregame show.


During the news conference pre-fight press conference Mickelson challenged Woods that he’d birdie the first hole, wagering $100,000. Woods doubled down, bumping the bet to $200,000 for the chosen charities.

However, Mickelson failed to birdie the opener, setting the stage for a day. Woods would be unable to add to the $200,000, as Mickelson won three nearest-the-pin challenges to earn $600,000 for his charities. Neither came close to holing their second shots for eagle on the par-four ninth despite ambitious offers of $1m. Other bets on monster putts and longest drives, both missing the fairway on the 14th, also proved fruitless.


The expected bravado and trash-talking failed to materialize as many thought it would. The naturally charismatic Mickelson did his part with fun exchanges with his brother and caddie Tim. But ended up pulling in the reins when Woods began to struggle. Woods playing to type as the reserved personality, whose showmanship is expressed in his game, not his ability to talk.

It would be difficult to argue that "The Match" delivered amazing golf. Combined, Woods and Mickelson managed just 10 birdies and both would have shot 3 under par for 18 holes.

If not for a makeshift hole that was used in overtime, with the players teeing off from the putting green to the 18th green that was 93 yards away, "The Match" could have continued well into the night.


Mickelson however did claim the $9m winner-takes-all prize. Sinking a four-foot putt for victory, under temporary lights, on the 22nd hole.


Even though both shot aggregate scores of 69, neither man was at their best. Possibly due to rust mixed with nervousness. Mickelson later admitting feeling pressure for days leading up to the event. Woods reported he was a jittery Tiger from the time he arrived at Shadow Creek around 8:30 a.m.

The Verdict

The day at Shadow Creek felt different from other PGA Tour events. Apart from a select band of family, friends, and sponsors, there were no spectators.


Another gimmick that B/R live viewers noticed was the display of betting odds on the screen. Designed to tempt viewers into placing bets. Utilizing real-time, hole-by-hole statistics, displaying the probability of different outcomes.


Viewer interest in "The Match" far surpassed expectations. Turner announced 750,000 unique views on the video service B/R live, part of the Bleacher Report's digital platform.

It didn't take long for the reviews to creep up online, and they were decidedly mixed. Graeme McDowell (@Graeme_McDowell_) was one player watching the match unfold, although in one Tweet he said he needed "some wine to get through it".

"The Match" proved that it could be a fun, entertaining way of showcasing the sport to a different audience.

Soon after the players teed off at, the event's promotional hashtag #TheMatch was trending worldwide.


Players, journalists, and fans dissected the spectacle. Enjoying how close the broadcast got to the action, including the cameras on the fairways. Giving a new perspective on the silly little player-caddie conversations and the interviews between holes.


However, the main fault lay squarely on the shoulders of Woods and Mickelson. “This is some crappy golf,” commentator Charles Barkley stated when they on the 9th hole. “Y’all know that. I could beat these two guys today.”


Not everything went well during the experiment. A technical glitch with AT&T's pay-per-view broadcast, allowed viewers to watch the event for free. Due to the B/R Live platform being inundated with subscribers who waited until the last minute to log in. Causing a traffic jam, due to the system that collects payment information, not having the capacity to collect so much credit card information.


A company statement saying "Prior to the start of the event, we experienced a technical issue with the B/R Live paywall page that we tried to quickly resolve. We decided to take down the paywall to ensure that fans who already purchased the event would not miss any action."


Despite the choice to refund those who were charged for the event, AT&T President Levy noted that the event was successful. Boding well for the future of pay-per-view, noting that every advertiser involved in "The Match" wants to come back.


If we do see another "The Match" next year and beyond, there are a number of things that could be done better. Primarily, the play on the course needs to be able to match the hype.


“We need to play better,” Woods said. “I wish we both would have played better, but neither one of us putted well that day and there were some tough hole locations out there,” Woods added.


“So maybe going forward, we just don't quite have the greens so fast or the pins so difficult. But also, as short as the golf course was playing, we should have made at least seven, eight birdies apiece. We just did not.”


One suggestion for "The Match 2.0," is that Tiger's personality does not work in this format. But "The Match" needs his name, to get the crowd of people you need to make this work financially. Potentially, "The Match" has to become a team game. Putting Woods and Mickelson on the same team and pit them against, a team like Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas or some even young stars from the LPGA.

Offer the audience players who will not be afraid to mix it up verbally. An example of a good player would be Perez. Who when asked how he was selected for the broadcast team, he replied flatly, “I have naked pictures of Tiger.”


A second suggestion could be to lean into the differentiation. At certain points "The Match" started to feel like a normal PGA Tour event. Which is fine, but probably not worth the effort everyone put in. So why not lean into the bizarre side and, if you're playing teams, make it a scramble on par 5's or take away a club for every hole lost or just something that's different from a normal PGA Tour tournament.

It was clear that there is plenty of room for improvement and any "The Match 2.0" would undoubtedly require plenty of nips and tucks. However, for all the shortcomings there was no denying that this was different. The event may not have revolutionized professional golf but it certainly created opportunities going forward that the traditional model of 72 holes of stroke play simply cannot.