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11 match-play showdowns we need even more than Tiger vs. Phil

April 30, 2020

In late May, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson will reprise their Thanksgiving 2018 match, and this time they’re bringing Tom Brady and Peyton Manning to the party. The first version was half weird, half interesting. I got to see it for free because the pay-per-view element was botched and Bleacher Report decided to just give it away to avoid a total scandal. In terms of cheap entertainment, it was fine. This time around, it’s going to air live on TNT, be a team event (Mickelson/Brady vs. Woods/Manning) and, assuming we’re still in the pandemic zone, there’s almost no chance I’ll miss it.

However, it got me thinking: If I had the power to wave a magic putter and set up any match I wanted, who would I choose? Would it be Tiger and Phil? Almost definitely not—at this point in their careers, they’re too cordial, and their 2018 event was full of forced chuckles and banter. I want true ferocity. I want a no-love-lost, out-and-out duel, competitive as possible, with bad blood … or at least some tense history behind it. Also, I want to be able to bring back anyone I want into their competitive prime, living or dead. With that in mind, here are 10 alternatives that might be even better than Tiger vs. Phil:

1. Tiger Woods vs. Ian Poulter

If we’re going to do this, why don’t we have the greatest golfer to ever play against the greatest match-play golfer ever? (Stop, I know. The latter is debatable, but give me this: It’s close.) Plus, if you give Poulter a stage like this, he will want to win desperately. There will be no chit-chat, no side bets, nothing but pure focus and intensity. That also will bring out the best in Tiger, who loves a challenge—who can forget how he responded to Abe Ancer wanting to play him at the Presidents Cup? (And Ancer was taken out of context!) Import some drunken, singing European fans, and this would be explosive.

2. Tiger Woods vs. Patrick Reed

The secret about Patrick Reed is that even though every young professional golfer on the planet grew up idolizing Tiger Woods, Patrick Reed’s idolization was on another level. We know about the red shirts on Sunday, but next time you listen to him talk, pay attention to the tight-lipped, clipped-off cadence, and you’ll realize that even in his speech he’s doing a Tiger Woods impression. Tiger has an affinity for him, too—at the Presidents Cup, every American player and captain was asked about Reed’s sand incident at the Bahamas, and most sounded like they were going through the motions. But Tiger defended Reed in a way that felt more genuine. There’s an understanding there, a mutual competitive excellence (Reed has now won two Masters if you count Golf Digest’s simulated 2020 version), and if you get them on the same course, they’ll both burn hot.

3. Keegan Bradley vs. Miguel Angel Jimenez

If I had to pick just one match-up, this might be it—a rematch of one of the funniest, most intriguing fights in the history of golf. You probably know the story, but as a refresher, they were playing a meaningless match at the WGC in 2015 (both had already been eliminated), when a rules dispute brought Jimenez and Bradley’s caddie, Steve (Pepsi) Hale, into an argument. Pepsi may have mocked his accent, Jimenez told him to shut up, and suddenly Bradley was in Jimenez’s face. Jimenez won the match, which makes the whole thing more hilarious, and Bradley confronted him after the handshake and then again in the locker room. Who doesn’t want to see this again?!?!

World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship - Round Two

Sam Greenwood

4. Michael Jordan vs. Anyone

I’ve been just a little obsessed with Michael Jordan ever since “The Last Dance” started airing, and it’s sad to me that we don’t get to see him compete anymore. And if we’re expanding to other sports, why are we missing on Jordan? The guy plays 54 holes every day, and he once scored 52 points in a game after drinking 10 beers while playing two rounds. Also, the man is the greatest smack-talker in the existence of sports. Just swap him in for Peyton—who, to be fair, is a good commercial actor, but I have no faith in him to improvise on the fly—and we’ll call it good. Put him on TV!

5. Paul Azinger vs. Nick Faldo

In Paul Azinger’s fascinating book about the 2008 Ryder Cup, he describes how he greeted European captain Nick Faldo when their plane landed, and how Faldo held the trophy he brought with him at arm’s length when the photograph was taken as a little “joke.” Azinger was not amused, and the two had already been fierce rivals dating back to the 1987 Open. And now they’re both TV commentators! A terrific way to extend one of the great rivalries.

6. Seve Ballesteros vs. Paul Azinger

This is taking the time machine a step further and opening up the entire history of golfer, and going back to the heyday of the European Ryder Cup resurgence. Seve once called an American Ryder Cup team “11 nice guys and Paul Azinger,” and the two had a famous fight at the 1989 Ryder Cup over a scuffed ball and a drop from the water, and then mixed it up again in 1991. If we could get both men in their prime, have them function as their own rules officials, and put $5 million at stake in mid-’80s money, it’s a concept that can’t miss.


Stephen Munday

7. Jack Nicklaus vs. Arnold Palmer

Yeah, of course.

8. Old Tom Morris vs. Young Tom Morris

Hell yeah! Do we know what their relationship was like? Get these guys out there on a windy day with plus-fours and niblicks and balls made out of a sheep’s appendix or whatever, and I’ll pay $1,000 to watch.


Print Collector

9. Rory McIlroy vs. Brooks Koepka

I have to include this because it would be the best rivalry among young players, but we need something to spice it up. If they were just playing a PPV match, neither one would really care and they’d mostly just screw around. I’m not sure what the incentive would be, since it’s hard to imagine either one caring very much about whatever prize could be summoned, so maybe we say that the loser isn’t allowed to play in the Masters for the next five years. That should juice it up!

10. Tom Watson vs. Phil Mickelson

Rev up the time machine once more, make Watson young, and have him play Phil a week after the 2014 Gleneagles Ryder Cup. (And also infuse young Tom with knowledge of what happened at Gleneagles, and hope he’s not really confused.)

BONUS: Bill Murray vs. Chevy Chase

Going back to the celebrity division, you have to bring in Bill Murray because he’s one of the funniest men ever and, as I found out at Medinah in 2012, it’s really fun to watch him play golf in front of a big crowd. Who would he play? Chevy Chase. According to basically everyone, Chevy Chase is a huge pompous jerk, and despite the fact that he and Murray were both in “Caddyshack,” it’s unclear whether Chase plays golf frequently, if ever. So there’s a good chance that this match would just be 18 holes of Murray ragging on Chase, and that would be more entertaining than anything on this list.