Expectations were not necessarily high for The Match: Champions for Charity — featuring Tiger Woods and Peyton Manning vs. Phil Mickelson and Tom Brady — at Medalist Golf Club on Sunday, but what played out in the rain exceeded even the most optimistic view of how this event would perform. Forget the actual result of the event, the pure entertainment value of a rain-delayed pro-am featuring athletes who have won a combined 26 championships should not be overlooked.
As for the result, Woods-Manning beat Mickelson-Brady 1 up in what turned into a thrilling home stretch of alternate-shot play on the back nine. Especially considering I was convinced this exhibition would be a yawn-fest in the same way the first Woods-Mickleson match was back in 2018. Instead, it became the golf event of the year to this point. (It certainly helps that no majors have been played yet.)
Here are 10 takeaways from what went down at Medalist on Sunday.
1. Tiger’s swing was phenomenal: Let’s not bury the lede here. Woods didn’t miss a shot. Zero. None. No shots were missed by the Big Cat on Sunday. And while I’m not going to extrapolate his play in an exhibition match on his home course to say major No. 16 is on deck, it was certainly encouraging to see after how poorly he played at the Genesis Invitational in February and how long he sat out between now and then. His driver looked especially impressive and surprisingly smooth after 100 days off. Heck, he might win the Masters in November by 10.
2. Justin Thomas was a star: “On-course reporter Justin Thomas” doesn’t exactly pop like “12-time PGA Tour winner Justin Thomas,” but what J.T. did on Sunday is not as easy as he made it look. Whether he was jabbing at Charles Barkley or throwing alley-oops to Mickelson, he carried the broadcast at times in a way I just did not expect. It helps that he knows everybody in the group — and especially Tiger — and has enough cachet to say whatever he wants, but the ease with which he handled what can be a complicated production was astounding.
3. This was Mickelson’s dream: Lefty has been preparing his entire life for a $20 million nationally-televised exhibition in which his only responsibility is to explain his complex brilliance and break down shot shapes and grain patterns to a six-time Super Bowl winner all while goading Tiger and receiving alley-oops from Thomas. You could not build a more perfect setup for Mickelson, and he absolutely nailed his leading role. Mickelson’s teaching and coaching of Brady was a unique look at the mind he has for the game. Also — let’s not allow Woods’ brilliance to overshadow this — Lefty quietly played some really solid golf throughout the day.
4. Line of the day: My favorite quip came from Mickelson at the par-4 10th hole. Brady hit his putt to somewhere around 6 or 7 feet on the first hole of alternate shot, and Tiger — who had his own putt from off the green for birdie and the win on the hole — told Mickelson to pick it up. Brady looked glad for the par gift, but a suddenly-concerned Mickelson turned to him with a very anxious look on his face and said, “That’s actually not a good sign,” referring to Tiger’s confidence. Woods missed the birdie, but it was an amazing look into a moment that’s emblematic of the way Woods and Mickelson have coexisted over the last 25 years.
5. Mics, camera, action: As far as the overall broadcast goes, my biggest takeaway is that it’s impossible to have too many microphones or cameras. Cameras in carts, cameras on golf bags, cameras literally anywhere it’s feasible to put them. The microphone situation was also terrific — at certain points Manning was just stringing uninteresting words together, and I was transfixed — but it was the earpieces that made the broadcast work and not just because it’s always been Tiger’s dream to play a big-money match with an earpiece.
Because all four golfers had earpieces, everybody knew who was talking at all times, and the entire thing flowed tremendously. Additionally, it gave producers the ability to patch people in to speak with the golfers while they played. At one point, this meant we got Brooks Koepka and Brady talking to each other before Brady teed off, which was just incredible to listen to considering Koepka put a challenge out on Twitter to donate money if Brady could simply make a par on the front nine. It also led to one of the best moments of The Match, which you will find below. You probably can’t do this for an actual event, but it would be spectacular if you could.
6. That Brady hole-out: The most amazing part about Brady’s hole-out from 150 yards out was not that his microphone pack flew off or that he split his pants while getting the ball out of the hole or that he threw his shot past the hole and spun it back into the cup, or that he did it all moments after Barkley’s trash talk … although all of those things were amazing. The most incredible part was that, even with Mickelson losing his mind up ahead of him, Brady reacted as if he’d just completed a 15-yard out route on second down. Ho-hum. He did get back at Barkley a bit (which was a delight), but this was the extent of his celebration following the birdie.
7. Should Tiger only play a major schedule? The argument for Woods playing an eight- or 12-tournament schedule in the past has been that he needed reps to get ready for the four biggest tournaments of the year. Common sense (and past history) would say that reps plus rest equals success for the Big Cat at majors. But what if the balance of that equation has tilted toward more rest and fewer reps? Again, it was an exhibition, but he looked ready to play a real PGA Tour event at a high level on Sunday after not having played in an event since the middle of February.
So what if Tiger just starts playing a four- or five-tournament schedule every year? Wouldn’t that make more sense at this point — with the institutional knowledge he has and with where his swing is at — than trying to grind things out at middle-of-the-road events on the PGA Tour just so his game is sharp (whatever that means) for the U.S. Open?
8. Rhythm to the round: The way the entire day started was important because of how it finished. The first three holes were almost so bad they were good, and it became easy to appreciate the theater of the absurd and embrace what seemed as if it would be a wild day. Then it flipped on the back, and we started getting Manning shots to 5 feet and Brady eagle putts, and that shift from preposterous to stupendous made for titillating television. If it had gone the other way — if golfers had started hot and faded to the ridiculous later in the match — I don’t think the event would have played out as well as it did.
9. Manning is … good? Maybe it’s simply because Brady was so bad early on, but Manning’s consistency was impressive. And his iron play was — at times throughout the day — better than that of Mickelson. His address is a little goofy, and he looks too big for his clubs at times, but he was mega-consistent with his ball-striking. He and Woods were feeling each other, too, which was a delight to watch, especially when Woods went into killhouse-mode late in the match and everyone else had to carry the broadcast. Manning is kind of the perfect person to play with as well. He goes fast, tells terrific stories and plays solid golf. The perfect golf buddies trip partner.
10. We got golf! How about $25 million raised for coronavirus relief over the last two weeks at Seminole and Medalist?! One of the big takeaways for me over the course of these two weeks — with six big PGA Tour names and two famous quarterbacks playing — is that golf kind of works within the coronavirus pandemic. It would be a tough look in these times to watch a sport in which guys were bodying up against each other or breathing on each other all the time, but golf — where you can naturally social distance and never really have to touch — well, it sort of works. It’s been a really strong two-week run for the sport and gives me optimism that we will have PGA Tour events and major championships as they’re scheduled for the rest of 2020 and into 2021. That’s an exciting thing in a devastating era for our culture and one I’m now hopeful for in a way I wasn’t just three weeks ago.