By DOUG FERGUSON
The winner between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson might be the least relevant aspect of their Friday night match in Las Vegas.
Far more compelling was the outcome of a 72-hole exhibition played over two courses for an obscene amount of money — Harry Vardon received nearly seven times more than what he had won from his one-shot victory over Willie Park Jr. in the 1898 British Open.
That next summer, Vardon and Park played an exhibition billed by the British press as the greatest golf competition ever. Vardon won 100 British pounds with his 2-up advantage at North Berwick before 10,000 spectators, and another 100 pounds for completing the 11-and-10 rout at his home course of Ganton.
So Woods vs. Mickelson is nothing new, except the public is not allowed at Shadow Creek.
What’s unique about this exhibition, with $9 million supposedly going to the winner, is the delivery. This is golf’s first venture into pay-per-view, and organizers were smart to keep the price at $19.99, which is about 25 percent of what a compelling heavyweight fight would command.
How many people care enough to sign up on Black Friday?
“Um, no,” Rory McIlroy said when he was asked last week in Dubai if he would pay to watch. “I contemplated it. I was having lunch with Phil at one of the FedEx Cup events and I said, ‘I might watch it.’ He took $25 out of his pocket and said, ‘No, here’s $25, I’ll pay for it for you.’ Thank you.”
McIlroy says it might have been worth it 15 years ago, but that now it has “missed the mark a little bit.”
Woods and Mickelson remain the two biggest names in golf even in this tidal wave of youth, but their one-sided rivalry — Woods was the only rival Mickelson had, not the other way around — has been dormant for five years. This feels old, and the relentless promotion at times has made it feel contrived.
Is it a bad idea? Not at all.
There is no downside to Woods and Mickelson squaring off in a pay-per-view event on a beautiful golf course at Shadow Creek that everyone seems to know but hardly anyone has seen. But when the biggest upside is that there’s no downside, selling it becomes an uphill battle.
There will be plenty of talking, and Mickelson is rarely without words. There will be side action. That’s part of what makes this different from the “Showdown at Sherwood,” a Monday night exhibition between Woods and David Duval in 1999 when they were in their prime and battling for No. 1 in the world.
The question is whether it has a future.
That’s about the only thing that piques the interest of Alastair Johnston, vice chairman of IMG who knows a little about these golf exhibitions.
Johnston was deeply involved with the Skins Game when it began in 1983 until it had run its course in 2008. In the midst of that run were the Monday night matches that featured Woods against Duval, Sergio Garcia and then a team format that ended — thankfully — when it had Woods, Mickelson, John Daly and Retief Goosen.
“It’s very tough for me to criticize it, but it’s very tough to praise it,” Johnston said.
That covers a lot of territory for a lot of golf fans. Those who live to criticize will be reaching for low-hanging fruit. Those who want to watch Woods and Mickelson go head-to-head will have no trouble finding entertainment.
“I’ll be interested, from a professional standpoint, in how many viewers it gets, how many pay,” Johnston said. “How many people actually care to spend money on that, and does it lead to other opportunities and different delivery systems? Golf hasn’t been tested like that. That’s what intrigues me.”
The PGA Tour has approved only one of these matches, even as there is talk of a franchise.
History suggests this won’t have much staying power. The Skins Game was ideal for Thanksgiving weekend, and there was plenty of star power among Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Fred Couples and others.
Golf has that now with a strong core of young major champions, and perhaps that’s in the future.
But more episodes of Woods and Mickelson will get old, and history suggests that Woods and any collection of players might not be enough. In the old Monday night exhibitions, Woods went from a 7.6 national rating with Sergio Garcia to a 3.0 in the last of the team events.
So the only outcome on Black Friday is how many care, even when it involves the one player everyone loves to watch.
Johnston recalls not so fondly the time he put together a unique concept in 1997, the year Woods set 20 records at the Masters and won by 12. He was to play against Michael Jordan, Ken Griffey Jr. and Kevin Costner. For every hole Woods won, they could choose which club to take out of his bag. They had walk-up music. It was taped to be shown on Christmas Day. It was called “Tiger & Friends.”
But then Jordan and Costner had to pull out, replaced by NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon and actor Chris O’Donnell. And then it rained.
The forecast is for sunshine and mild weather in Las Vegas on Friday.
That’s a start.