Sports Betting Takes Center Stage In Tiger vs. Phil

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Tiger Woods chipped in on the 17th hole — just when he seemed to be on the verge of defeat in “The Match” against Phil Mickelson. That opened the door for more drama on holes 18, 19, 20, and 21, before Woods knocked his tee shot to eight feet on the 22nd hole. Mickelson answered by knocking it to four feet.

Tiger missed, Phil made, and the $19.99 pay-per-view event ended Friday with “Lefty” collecting $9 million — plus $600,000 for his charities — as the sun set on an exclusive country club course north of the Las Vegas Strip.

So the offbeat sporting event was a hit? Not exactly — though in the case of many hyped-up sporting events, if the end features drama, much of the tepid action along the way is forgiven.

Still, this PPV match floundered early and more extensively than most high-profile duels. From a rambling pre-game show to dull interludes to sometimes subpar (not literally, alas) play, The Match had it its issues.

Where it succeeded was in giving the public something unique to bet on, and in bringing the allure of in-game sports betting and prop betting to a mainstream audience.

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Side bets and sideshows

Condolences to those who aren’t into gambling and paid good money to be entertained watching two living legends play golf. What they got instead was well summed up by this viewer on Twitter:

Right from the start, the big talk on the first tee was Phil’s contrived bet of $200,000 to his or Tiger’s preferred charity, depending on whether he birdied the first hole. While Phil knocked his second shot on an easy par-4 to nine feet, he missed the putt and thus had to pay up. Viewers immediately were told that, per PlayMGM, 67% of the money had been on Phil making a birdie.

This followed a pre-game show that included a conversation between NBA legend Charles Barkley and actor Ben Stiller — who confessed to being mystified as to why he was hawking his latest movie on a PPV golf event — on the future of the New York Knicks. Actor Samuel L. Jackson handled the introductions of the two players, for some reason. (It probably wasn’t coincidental that he and Barkley were featured in a handful of half-screen Capital One Bank commercials during the program.) It was clear immediately that this PPV was more about show than sport.

As Tiger and Phil walked down the first fairway together, both agreed that Jackson is the epitome of “cool.” Phil related that at one Ryder Cup event, Jackson confessed to him that his children didn’t think of him as “cool” at all — and isn’t that just how life goes, no matter how famous you get?

It was a fine anecdote, but one rarely matched the rest of the match. And given that the match lasted four hours and 45 minutes, that’s a long time to go without any better banter.

Inside the betting

Early in the week, the odds were tilted heavily toward Tiger (I got Phil at a silly +175 when we made our bets on last week’s Gamble On podcast), before “sharps” pounded Phil down to about +150 by match time. Those odds were a topic of conversation on the broadcast, leaving even casual viewers with no interest in sports betting clued in to that trend.

For those with a legal online sports betting account in New Jersey, there was plenty of “in-game” betting. The odds on who would win shifted almost with each hole, and gamblers could venture money on who would hit the longer drive or land closer to the hole on a par-3, among other options.

Per Patrick Everson, MGM’s Jeff Stoneback said his books “got beat up pretty good. All the money was on Mickelson [Friday]. MGM books won on props/in-play wagering, mainly due to lots of holes being halved, but overall, ‘sizable’ 6-figure loss.”

As for the level of interest, a DraftKings spokesman noted that the event produced triple the volume of betting on DK Sportsbook compared to the Ryder Cup or the U.S. Open earlier this year.

MGM Resorts International Vice President of Race and Sports Jay Rood told Forbes that the betting handle was on par with a boxing or UFC match. (He didn’t specify how big a boxing/UFC match he was comparing it to, but the implication was that the handle was strong.)

Tee shots and longshots

Mickelson nearly holed one of his par-3 tee shots on one bounce, which would have been costly for books offering absurdly low 100/1 odds. There were no “albatrosses” (a 2 on a par-5 or an ace on a drivable par-4) and also no withdrawals or disqualifications (such ridiculous plays that only “yes” betting at long odds was allowed). Anyone foolish enough to make such bets — and you know people went for the hole-in-one angle — provided free money to the sportsbooks.

One of the supposed attractions of the broadcast was to be the “challenges” each player would make during the match. The first came on the par-3 5th hole, as Phil knocked a tee shot to eight feet to collect $100,000 for his charities.

By the 7th hole of this lifeless match, fellow PGA Tour pro Justin Thomas tweeted, “Let’s hear the trash talking … get [fellow pro and broadcaster of the event]Pat Perez out there to stir the pot.”

Another Tour pro, Colt Knost, chimed in with the amusing idea of having Tiger and Phil each be allowed to force the other player to have Barkley — a mediocre-at-best golfer — play one shot during the round. By that point, any gimmick seemed worth a try.

At least there was a genuine moment between Tiger and Phil on the 7th fairway — but it was a betting moment, of course. Tiger proposed a $200,000 bet on the next two shots of the par-5, but with a 40-yard disadvantage from his tee shot, Phil wanted 3/2 odds. Tiger wouldn’t budge, so no deal.

“This is crappy golf”

By the 9th hole — after a silly $1 million bet on either player holing out their second shot on a par-4 — Barkley could contain himself no longer from the broadcast set.

“Can I say something, America? This is some crappy golf,” Barkley said. “I know I’m not good, but I could beat these guys today.”

On the 12th hole, ESPN sports business reporter Darren Rovell tweeted that Bleacher Report’s B/R Live live-streaming payment option for the match had crashed, and that many would-be paying customers seeking to watch on that platform would get the event for free.

Also on the 12th hole, a frustrated Perez — one of way too many voices on the broadcast — said he wanted “more smack [trash talk]and more betting.” And also, “I demand better shots” from what he called the icons of his golfing generation.

That was near rock bottom, it turned out. Woods birdied the 11th and 12th holes to take his only lead of the day at 1-up, while Phil birdied the par-3 13th to wind up 3-for-3 on “closest to the pin” bets.

From Golf Digest: “The first 14 holes were ‘competitive’ in the sense that a YMCA Little Tykes’ 0-0 soccer game is competitive.” Tour pro Rickie Fowler needled on Twitter:

In spite of the constant playMGM updates on things like what percentage of bettors projected matching scores for each player on a given hole, the golf finally began to take over around this stage.

After a 10-foot birdie putt by Tiger on the 14th hole missed by a nanometer, Phil joked with Tiger after their 15th hole tee shots that he had somehow “willed” that putt to miss.

Phil also then confessed that “I’m trying to be more talkative” — an obvious nod to the fact that the producers of this two-man event no doubt had warned Phil that given Tiger’s laconic personality, Mickelson would need to carry most of the dead time between shots. Tiger sympathized: “I hear you — we’re back to our old selves, trying to beat each other’s brains in.”

For those viewers still awake after indulging in Thanksgiving leftovers, that was good to see.

At least the finish was compelling

Phil had a 1-up lead through 16 holes, and with Tiger just over the green on the par-3 17th (neither offered a final “challenge” of closest-to-the-pin; maybe because of the PGA Tour, but who cared at that point) and Phil’s ball closer, it looked like the match might be over.

That’s when Tiger chipped in from about 15 feet, and Phil failed to convert his birdie, leaving the match tied entering the 18th hole.

After the players matched scores on the 18th and then a second try at the same hole, it got weird.

Apparently because of both worries about darkness and fitting the result into the PPV window, the “20th hole” was a contrived 93-yard pitch shot to the course’s putting green. Finally, on the third go-round — so the “22nd hole” — Phil prevailed, a convenient three minutes before the PPV channel shut down.

There was no time for a post-match trophy ceremony, or even analysis from the army of analysts (ex-LPGA Tour golfer Natalie Gulbis was on-screen exactly once on the course, on the 18th tee).

It was a fitting ending for an event that veered toward the brink of disaster at times, only to escape with just enough of its dignity. The best bet is that any rematches or similar future ventures — and both players have hinted at more — will be extensively revamped.

Photo by David W. Leindecker  / Shutterstock.com

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John Brennan

John Brennan has covered NJ and NY sports business and gaming since 2002 and was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist in 2008, while reporting for The Bergen County Record.

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