Tiger vs. Phil is the heavyweight fight we all want to see

Ian O'ConnorESPN Senior Writer6 Minute Read

Phil throws first smack talk for Tiger showdown

Phil Mickelson tells Michael Collins that he's looking forward to talking smack with Tiger Woods about their match-play showdown in November.

Editor's note: This story was originally published July 6, 2018.

As an escape artist, Phil Mickelson makes everyone from Harry Houdini to David Blaine appear slow and lacking in imagination. Whether it is a shot from behind an Augusta National tree or an unruly lie in an insider-trading case involving a high-stakes gambling partner, Mickelson always pulls something out of his bag to get home safely.

A John Daly-esque stunt at the U.S. Open that compelled Lefty to apologize and describe himself as embarrassed, starting a conversation that promised to last the summer and beyond?

Hey, did I happen to mention that I'm going to wrestle Tiger Woods in a $10 million winner-take-all that might make Vince McMahon blush?

Yes, Lefty started publicly campaigning for a steel-cage match against Tiger before his Shinnecock meltdown on the 13th green. Now, it's official. Woods and Mickelson will meet in a winner-take-all $9 million match play event Friday, Nov. 23, at Shadow Creek Golf Course in Las Vegas. The event will be televised on pay-per-view by Turner's B/R Live platform, in addition to DirecTV and AT&T U-verse. Pricing has not been set.

At a Players Championship news conference in May, he steered a question about his pairing with Woods into an opportunity to say it would be a ton of fun to "bypass all the ancillary stuff of a tournament and just go to a head-to-head" with the defining titan of his generation -- or any generation.

"It's been four years since we've been paired last on Thursday-Friday," Mickelson said at the Players, "and I don't think we should wait for the governing bodies to put us together. I think we should just do something on our own and get after it."

Woods responded, "I'm definitely not against that. We'll play for whatever makes him uncomfortable."

Be honest: Wouldn't Phil vs. Tiger for $9 million just be a whole lot of fun?AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

Woods then outplayed Mickelson over two days at TPC Sawgrass, leaving their proposed duel in the sun dormant until Lefty jolted it back to life in a Golf.com story Friday that reported the match nearly happened on July 3 in Las Vegas (where else?) and that negotiations between the players' camps were advancing toward a firm date.

"I couldn't do it on my own," Mickelson then told the website. "He couldn't do it on his own. But together, we're [trying] to create something pretty special."

If nothing else, this story created a needed diversion for Mickelson, still wounded after his biggest U.S. Open mistake since his second shot on the 72nd hole at Winged Foot in 2006. Who wants to talk about an intentional swipe at a moving ball to spite the USGA in the middle of the national championship when Tiger and Phil are about to go one-on-one for big bucks in a staredown that might draw more TV viewers than a Masters Sunday?

As the lesser historical figure, Mickelson has more to gain here. He has long credited Woods for enhancing his career, and bank account, by dramatically increasing prize money and endorsement opportunities for all pros. At 48, Mickelson realizes his winning days might be over. Given the likelihood that a Lefty-Tiger final pairing on a major championship Sunday isn't going to happen, it makes sense for Mickelson to find creative ways to monetize his association with the 42-year-old Woods, who owns huge career advantages in major titles (14-5) and tour victories (79-43) over the second-best player of his era.

But their pending faceoff raises some important questions for a sport often struggling to capture the attention of American sports fans who are already overserved by baseball, football and basketball, and who pay attention to golf only four weeks a year (maybe five in a Ryder Cup year). Included among the more pressing questions are these:

Doesn't a manufactured TV event cheapen the game?

No, made-for-TV matches are part of golf history. While Woods' exhibitions under the lights with past and present, male and female stars early in his prime didn't make any lasting impact, "Shell's Wonderful World of Golf" was a viewing treasure. That series started pitting aging greats against each other in the 1960s, when you could watch Ben Hogan vs. Sam Snead, and later in the 1990s, when you could watch Jack Nicklaus vs. Arnold Palmer and Gary Player vs. Lee Trevino.

Doesn't the constant coverage of Tiger and Phil hurt the tour's attempt to market this new wave of 20-something American stars?

Golf's advantage over more physically taxing sports is its ability to ride its transcendent champions into their 40s and beyond. Tom Watson was one putt away from winning his sixth Open Championship title at age 59. Nicklaus had a legitimate chance to win his seventh green jacket at Augusta at age 58. The fan, player and media buzz around the Tiger-Phil practice round at this year's Masters said it all, and so did this photo of the masses following Woods at the Quicken Loans National.

The Jordan Spieths and Brooks Koepkas and Patrick Reeds can wait until Woods puts away his clubs for keeps.

Tiger doesn't have any genuine respect for Phil, does he?

He does now. In the old days, no, he didn't. Woods started changing the way he felt about Mickelson in 2004, when Lefty finally broke through and won his first major title. The following year, during their epic Sunday showdown at Doral, Mickelson hit it in close in what would ultimately be a losing effort. The crowd went wild. "Great f---ing shot, Phil!" Woods shouted above the noise. Tiger's respect for Phil has grown over time, in part because Mickelson won five majors and three legs of the Grand Slam and, in part, because Lefty started competing fiercely against Woods. Tiger's career advantage in head-to-head rounds was only 16-15-4 before going 2-0 at the Players.

Come on, isn't this really a mere money-grab gimmick involving two zillionaires?

You can call it that. Or you can call it the opening of a vaudeville act between two wise graybeards who realized, like Arnie and Jack, that there was easy money to be made off the competitive tension and stylistic differences between them while younger guns were dominating the tour.

Either way, golf has always leaned on individual star power and rivalries between men who, deep down, don't really like each other. Men like Phil and Tiger. Lefty and Righty.

If the game couldn't deliver Woods and Mickelson in a Sunday fight at Augusta National, their $9 million poker game in Vegas would be the next best thing.