Whatever I just saw, I want more of it.
Tiger Woods and Peyton Manning beat Phil Mickelson and Tom Brady on Sunday afternoon in the most entertaining sporting event since sports essentially stopped in March. “The Match 2” will not be easy to replicate as sports resume—Charles Barkley and Justin Thomas cannot be on every broadcast in every sport, and Thomas certainly can’t refer to Barkley’s “fat ass” again for a while. Mickelson cannot give long-winded explanations of his shots in the middle of an NHL game. Brady will not split his pants open on an incredible shot in an NBA game. It was the five best hours of sports we’ve seen in many months, and there’s a lot to learn.
This was not an easy event to pull off; it could have easily morphed into a hollow and unfun slog. But it turned into—and I don’t say this lightly—basically the perfect quarantine sports event. Four of the greatest athletes of all time, rain-soaked and battling each other; darkness, the elements, and terrible shots; all while getting roasted by a long parade of celebrities. Let’s do this again next week. Or Monday. There is no metric to show how successful the event was yet—though social media and my text messages provide some clues that most every sports fan was glued in. More than anything, the best argument I can make for its relevance is that I found myself nervous for a charity golf event.
The two-on-two event was a sequel to a 2018 Las Vegas showdown between Woods and Mickelson, and it blew the original away (think Terminator 2). In doing so, the event not only filled a dull, sportsless Sunday but probably provided a template for how sports can remake itself in this era. There was a level of access that not every sport or athlete will be comfortable with—players were not only mic’d up, they could also banter with announcers and call-in guests. But the basic framework of how to make an entertaining broadcast was there. The lesson is not necessarily to jam celebrities into the broadcast, or play everything for charity, or have athletes appearing every few holes to provide incentives for other athletes. Those things worked on Sunday, and the reason they worked is simple: The competition was very real, the emotions were authentic, and the characters were invested and magnetic. If you can show those things, you have a formula to help relaunch your sport when it resumes without crowds.
When sports restart without crowds, there’s probably an argument that only the die-hard fan will be fired up about games with no sound other than the ones coming from the players and coaches. But that’s not necessarily true—Sunday’s broadcast could easily appeal to any non-golf fan. It was breezy and fun. Hell, Tom Brady told the most obvious dad joke of all time when he channeled Caddyshack and wondered when the heavy stuff would come down during a deluge. The trash talk was genuine. Even the least-engaged sports fan would have found the banter insightful, or been intrigued to see Brady become genuinely upset and apologize to Mickelson after missing a putt on the back nine. Or Manning making the same face he made after awful interceptions.
Getting a genuine anguished Peyton face after all these years >>>>>— Patrick Daugherty (@RotoPat) May 24, 2020
In-game access is good, and leagues are going to have to push the boundaries of how much they are willing to accommodate it.
As for the actual golf: Woods and Manning were three up after 10 holes, a lead they never relinquished but cut close. They clinched while one hole up on the 18th hole. Some golf was amazing: Woods hitting laser after laser, a focal point of American sports on dozens of Sundays, almost felt like it was happening in the background. Woods didn’t have a huge miss all day and Manning was competent enough to help close it out. The golf was the main attraction, but there was so much more: On the third hole, the participants could win additional money for charity for having the longest drive. Mickelson gave a long speech about the increased donation from his sponsor, Workday. “This is for you, Workday,” he said while Woods stared straight ahead like Jim Halpert from The Office. Mickelson sent the ensuing drive into the trees and lost the long drive contest. During the slow movement of the front nine, it was the first time in history people have been totally fine with a slow pace of play in golf. I would have watched a thousand holes of this.
The interplay was almost perfect: Woods deadpanning to the camera while Mickelson talked was comedic perfection. Woods essentially just stopped talking in the last hour of the match while Mickelson started talking more. Mickelson was talking about “hitting bombs” all day. He would talk trash at the first hint of success. Brady was confident and had enough jokes to keep everyone’s interest. Peyton was funny and could carry the conversation the whole time. Brady sarcastically asked, “OK for ya?” on a great shot on 17 after one particularly specific Mickelson instruction.
Most of the 2000s was spent building up the differences between Tiger and Phil. Rick Reilly wrote a 2006 Sports Illustrated column asking whether you were a “Tiger Guy” or a “Phil Guy,” with the implication that there was no in-between. This narrative has dissolved over time and was never all that real anyway—both are world-class golfers, and choosing one over the other does not define some personality type. But I’ll be damned if they didn’t play into the world’s preconceived notions of them on Sunday: Woods was the quiet, stone-cold assassin and Mickelson talked into the camera about how great his shots were.
Now, it’s important to note that this event was a roaring success despite two pretty pedestrian golfers on the course. Competence is overrated. This brings us to Brady, who is not particularly great at golf. After some notable early struggles, things got pretty ugly for the greatest quarterback of all time. Charles Barkley said he’d donate $50,000 if Brady hit the green. Brady’s shot was so far off that Barkley joked he should have stipulated Brady simply keep the ball on this planet. Brooks Koepka, perhaps the best golfer in the world, said he’d donate $100,000 if Brady had a par on the front nine. It seemed like every famous person in America was going to give to charity if Brady stopped screwing up. This feels like a recurring nightmare: If you’ve never played golf, I’d like to explain to you that playing poorly in front of anyone is a horrific event. This includes your closest friends, or maybe especially includes your closest friends. The idea of playing poorly in front of people you don’t know is on a different plane altogether. Brady was going through something even worse: He couldn’t hit a shot with Charles Barkley making fun of him, with the reigning PGA championship winner trying to donate to charity if he showed some competence, and all of America watching. He was trying to help Phil Mickelson beat Tiger Woods and Brady’s greatest football rival, Peyton Manning. This was a bad time to be playing badly. Brady wore an earpiece so he could hear commentary about his bad shots. Former Masters winner Trevor Immelman had to tell Brady where to drop his ball after he hit it into the water and the play-by-play crew asked Immelman to give Brady swing tips. The only thing worse than a bad golf shot is people seeing your bad golf shot. A whole planet seeing your bad golf shots and dunking on them is a new category. What would your reaction be? Mine would be to walk into a cave and never come out. This is why I am not Tom Brady.
The shot that keeps us all coming back for more pic.twitter.com/TeMwwtTORi— GOLF.com (@GOLF_com) May 24, 2020
Brady dunked the ball into the cup on 7, an incredible shot that went against everything he’d done up to that point. If I may be philosophical, this is why people who aren’t great at golf play it: You can shoot dozens of bad shots and then hit one great one and you can talk unimaginable amounts of shit, as Brady did after this shot.
TOM. BRADY.— NFL (@NFL) May 24, 2020
(via @BleacherReport) pic.twitter.com/Q1kBnGqbr3
Brady, in the spirit of the unpredictable afternoon, split his pants on the shot and had to change them. Koepka called in and ended up talking directly to Brady. This event was beautiful.
But all this, partly, is why the event worked: Tom Brady inexplicably became an underdog. He was vulnerable. The guy who never really screws up on a football field couldn’t hit a shot for a vast majority of the front nine. It was fun to see this, and equally great to see him rebound with a solid back nine that put his team back into contention. This was, simply, a slice of humanity. Great golf with real stakes is fun, but this was almost as fun, whatever it was. There was something soothing about elite athletes playing real golf. Seeing Mickelson say to the other three that it’s “7:30, we’re gonna have to hurry” to beat the darkness. They were in carts, pretending the rain wasn’t bothering them while trying to finish all 18 holes. We’ve all been there. For the second straight week, after the Dustin Johnson–Rory McIlroy–Rickie Fowler–Matthew Wolff charity match last week, we saw professional golfers wearing shorts. We are in a brave new era.
Tom Brady has holed out from the fairway, rolled in an eagle putt and lost about three sleeves of balls.— Jason Sobel (@JasonSobelTAN) May 24, 2020
Tom Brady has -— Justin Ray (@JustinRayGolf) May 24, 2020
- Lost several golf balls
- Had inexplicable hole-out from fairway
- Said on camera "take a suck on that, Chuck"
- Split his pants
We're still on the front nine
Look, sports is not going to be perfect when it comes back, and leagues and networks might misfire in their attempt to provide entertaining broadcasts without crowds. Striking the balance between competitive integrity and making the events fun is probably going to be a challenge for most leagues. It will take a heroic effort from broadcasters to bring energy to these events. UFC brought energy to their quarantine fights by having an entertaining broadcast crew who served as passionate observers while providing a nice rhythm to the action. We saw there the unintended consequences of quiet venues: Fighters could hear color analysts Daniel Cormier and Joe Rogan mid-fight and made adjustments thusly. Similar quirks will play out in other leagues—perhaps coaches wouldn’t want mic’d-up athletes in order to keep plays or strategies secret. But leagues have to try to bring that sort of energy to empty venues.
I watch a lot of golf, and I’ve wondered how they can make it work when crowds will either be nonexistent or severely limited. It’s not like the lack of the crowd will kill the average event, like the Charles Schwab Challenge which tees off in a little more than two weeks, but it will hurt events like the Ryder Cup, where the crowd often is the action. Every sport will face this problem, and the solution this event provided was to take your personalities and set them free to entertain the masses.
We learned about the athletes. When the broadcast reminded Brady that Woods was wearing Atlanta Falcons colors, he said it was the Philadelphia Eagles that made him cringe, not the Falcons. Mickelson went pure Phil for most the day, starting in the morning when he was alarmingly committed to this bit:
Here is today’s winning formula! pic.twitter.com/nVUo5JemVq— Phil Mickelson (@PhilMickelson) May 24, 2020
Remember, this event didn’t really work the first time. Part of the reason why was that Mickelson and Woods’s banter seemed forced. Plus, the all-or-nothing prize didn’t really resonate with fans (I liked a point I heard on a recent No Laying Up podcast that basically theorized no one really had any context for how much $9 million means for these guys).
Celebrity golf is not some sort of cheat code to unlocking entertainment. Brady and Michael Jordan teamed up in 2006 and I do not remember watching it or talking about it at the time. The Pebble Beach Pro-Am is fun but has never gripped the sporting world en masse (Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald is a dominant force in the event).
But this event worked. Maybe it was just a lucky confluence of a handful of factors. Maybe it was seeing four elite athletes on a Sunday when we haven’t seen many elite athletes lately. Or maybe it was just fun. People did enjoy betting on it:
“The Match” betting partner, @DKSportsbook, said Sunday’s event broke their record for betting on a golf event...way before it was over https://t.co/hAtphas4Ey— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) May 25, 2020
This could easily be done again. I liked golf writer Kyle Robbins’s idea to get Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas on opposite teams. Regardless, there’s a path forward now. Though maybe Charles Barkley and Justin Thomas should be in every booth.