At large: Woods v Mickelson - a chance to innovate or a veterans’ last dance?

SportsPro's editor at large Eoin Connolly muses on golf's opportunity as two fading greats announce a battle royale in Las Vegas.

At large: Woods v Mickelson - a chance to innovate or a veterans’ last dance?

It’s on, then. The world’s best golfers of ten years ago will meet later this year in a unique, winner-takes-all matchplay extravaganza.

On the weekend of 24th November, Tiger Woods will play Phil Mickelson on the Shadow Creek course at the MGM Resorts International in Las Vegas. The victor will take home US$9 million, easily the biggest one-off payday in his career – the US Open champion currently picks up US$2.16 million. Charitable side-bets for longest drives or closest shots to the pin will give the two old rivals another source of bragging rights.

Fittingly for Vegas, the whole production has a hint of the fight night model around it.    

Warner Media has collected the global media rights to the event, with coverage produced by Turner Sports. Live action will be available on pay-per-view via the DirecTV cable platform and Turner’s streaming service, B/R Live, while shoulder programming across a suite of sister channels and social outlets. 

There are two contexts in which to consider this: what it says about wider sporting trends and what it says about golf. In both cases, it probably has to be viewed through the prism of one individual’s reputation. Mickelson is a five-time major winner whose profile is particularly substantial in the US but for all his accomplishments, he comes into this event as a foil for his opponent. 

Woods has long transcended the sport – as an infant prodigy on late-night talk shows, as the first African-American to properly crack golf’s elite, then as its most talented and dominant exponent in at least a generation, and finally as a drifting enigma with a dense personal hinterland. Even though a succession of younger players have emerged to dispute the majors with one another, the shadow of the great man has spread right across the era. 

Tiger Woods last won a Major back in 2008, over a decade ago at the US Open

For much of that time, he has been compelling without being competitive. His quest to catch Jack Nicklaus on 18 majors has been stalled at 14 for a decade now as he has struggled to retrieve his game from the detritus of a collapsed personal life and disintegrating body. Like the heavyweights who rose in the shadow of a still-active but withered Mike Tyson in the late 90s and early 2000s, those players who are winning have too often been defined by casual fans in relation to the ghost in their midst.  

In recent months, however, the Tiger has been back on the prowl and the sheer power of his appeal has been plain for all to see. His strong final day at The Open, coming in the midst of a highly competitive last round, brought a flurry of social media interest. Then in August, according to Nielsen, his even closer push for US PGA glory at Bellerive Country Club yielded a 73 per cent growth in audience for domestic broadcaster CBS, from 4.9 million viewers to 8.5 million. Tiger in red is still ratings gold. 

While Woods’ outsized notoriety is a dilemma to grapple with it is by no means one unique to golf. Leading lights in a whole host of sports are taking longer to age out of competitive relevance. And the nostalgic feedback loop that modern archival access encourages only keeps these stars burning longer. Nike’s most recent soccer campaign makes heavy use of the now-retired Andrea Pirlo and of Brazil’s Ronaldinho, whose most recent world class performances came before Woods’ last major. 

Leading lights in a whole host of sports are taking longer to age out of competitive relevance. And the nostalgic feedback loop that modern archival access encourages only keeps these stars burning longer

Digital media has given the individual a stronger gravitational pull. Social platforms, of course, allow athletes to straightforwardly curate and measure a personal audience, but their effects go further. As the telecoms investor David McCourt noted during an event held by digital video company Dugout earlier this summer, the type of short video clips increasingly shared online shift focus from leagues and clubs to the player at the centre. 

Set-pieces of the kind that Woods and Mickelson will share this Thanksgiving can also thrive in this new media environment. Last year’s boxing match between Floyd Mayweather Jr and UFC champion Conor McGregor paired overgrown personalities with playground high-concept, and its backers could build the commercial rights for themselves. Creating events from scratch brings the added benefit of experimenting with different modes of distribution without affecting existing rights deals.  

Nevertheless, there is one more element in all of this: none of these phenomena are actually all that new. Cristiano Ronaldo’s arrival in Serie A has reenergised that competition and brought interest from far and wide, but then so did Diego Maradona’s arrival in Italy in the 1980s. So did David Beckham’s moves to Spain and then the USA in the 2000s. And so did Pele’s mission to North America with the New York Cosmos in the 1970s. 

'The Match' gives broadcasters and organisers an opportunity to try something innovative with golf

For the showdown between Woods and Mickelson, see the US$1 million 150m race between sprinters Donovan Bailey and Michael Johnson at the Toronto Skydome in 1997. For McGregor’s meeting with Mayweather, see the bizarre 1970s encounter between Muhammad Ali and the Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki. The metrics are different; the fundamentals are the same. 

Athlete-led spectacles, then, may not be sport’s next great innovation – even challenge matches in golf have some history – but the Woods-Mickelson match could still have a disruptive effect. For media companies, the core structural weakness of any traditional golf tournament is that there is no guarantee of which players will emerge from a crowded field. An event founded instead on the presence of established stars will at least offer a measure of certainty, if not legitimacy. 

In the short term, the most obvious outlet for match-up matchplay would be as a complement to seniors tours – a way of keeping familiar faces in the spotlight in a more glamorous, accessible setting. How much further it goes will depend on the appetite for the confected format. 

It is the production that could be most influential. Plans for greater access to the two competitors, with microphones worn by both men as well as their caddies, will add a dimension to the viewer experience that could well be emulated elsewhere. If it can amplify the personalities of those involved, it could be the sort of development that helps tease out golf’s next crossover superstars. 

Set against that is the danger that the world outside golf looking in will see a sport that lacks the confidence to move on from reliable veterans – and one in particular – even as it professes a desire for a younger, broader audience. There could be seeds there of its future, or symptoms of decline.