19th hole: As pitchman and player, Phil Mickelson still winning

LAS VEGAS – Leave it to Phil Mickelson to lose $200,000 on the first hole and still come out on top.

No matter what Mickelson does, no matter how thick he lays it on or how ridiculous his actions at times, he always seems to save face.

Mickelson lost that side bet when he failed to birdie the first hole of “The Match” against Tiger Woods at Shadow Creek. He won “The Match” when he knocked it stiff on the fourth playoff hole and made the birdie putt, executing a small fist-pump for effect.

In a way, Mickelson already had helped set this thing up as a can’t-lose proposition. The $9 million prize was not his or Woods’ to begin with. He was a heavy underdog in Las Vegas. He talked himself up throughout the promotional run-up, making semi-outlandish claims about when and how he’d beat Woods.

At the same time, he gladly played David to Woods’ Goliath in the pre-match news conference when asked about Woods’ lasting legacy in golf.

“Greatest of all time,” Mickelson said. “That’s an easy one for me. I’ve seen him do things with a golf ball that’s never been done. The performance in that 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach is the single greatest performance in the history of the game of golf, and possibly all sports. He continued to play at that level for a number of years. The greatest of all-time is an easy slogan for me with Tiger.”

Nov 23, 2018; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Phil Mickelson (right) reacts after the winner's belt didn't fit as Tiger Woods (left) looks on after The Match: Tiger vs Phil golf match at Shadow Creek Golf Course. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports
Phil Mickelson laughed all the way to the bank with $9 million (before taxes, of course) after winning his match against Tiger Woods. (Rob Schumacher/USA TODAY Sports)

Mickelson always knows how and when to hedge his bets off the course. Once talks for “The Match” were already in the works, Mickelson played a practice round with Woods at Augusta National ahead of the Masters. Knowing how many eyeballs that attracts, he donned a new long-sleeve dress shirt from Mizzen+Main, a company in which he has a stake and for which he later danced in a commercial designed to go viral.

That’s Mickelson in a nutshell. Everything is so over the top it’s hard not to laugh along with him while he dances all the way to the bank.

It’s also, at times, hard to know how much he actually believes the things he’s saying, like during the HBO “24/7” documentary show leading up to “The Match” when he was in true showman mode and said he wasn’t done winning majors.

Like Woods, it’s been five years since his last, though Mickelson did win last year in Mexico and putted surprisingly well all season. And the driver that plagued him all year looked pretty good at times in Las Vegas, which Mickelson wasted no time pointing out in his own on-brand way.

“We played some really good golf and this is very encouraging to me too, because I drove the ball like a stallion,” Mickelson said. “That gives me a lot of, you know, if I can drive the ball well in the next year, next couple of years, I’m very optimistic about what that holds.”

Mickelson finished T-17 a month ago at the Safeway Open before an extended break leading up to “The Match.” And he played well in the FedEx Cup Playoffs, knocking off a T-15 at the Northern Trust and T-12 at the Dell Technologies Championship.

Most of his time discussing those starts was in context with “The Match,” as he joked about improving his odds and peaking at the right time. In Paris, after playing a practice round with Woods, he said he was considering asking for strokes because Woods was swinging so well.

Mickelson certainly sold “The Match” much harder than Woods, likely in part because it comes so naturally to him. He leaked some of the details to a reporter long before it was finalized, created his own Twitter account, took the lead role in promotional segments and interviews.

Had he lost, we would have seen more of the awe-shucks, self-deprecating Mickelson that endeared him to so many fans in the first place. He was humble in victory, though he did mention several times that Woods probably missed the green at the modified 93-yard playoff hole twice because the ball travels farther off a tee and they aren’t used to hitting tee shots with a lob wedge.

Mickelson never wastes an opportunity to throw in a nugget like that, implication being he clearly would have considered it had he hit first.

He’s also selling us on the idea that he isn’t done in major championships at age 48. And the more you hear him talk, the more you watch him play when things are going well, the less crazy it sounds.

For all the criticism Mickelson is open to, he still gets Mizzen+Main their exposure, he still makes that commercial with the dance moves popping up all over the internet, he still leaves reporters chuckling at every turn and, oh yeah, he actually won “The Match” and left with all the money and bragging rights.

He’s clearly not done competing and wants to keep going strong this season, because even when Mickelson loses it seems he always wins in the end. Gwk



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