The Match (2): Tiger Woods proves fitness as Mickelson, Manning & Brady help raise $20m

Tiger Woods is fit and firing, Phil Mickelson is a born entertainer and two legendary NFL quarterbacks can play half-decent golf.

Furthermore, Justin Thomas will have a big future in broadcasting if he ever needs it.

Despite prolonged Floridian downpours that threatened golf’s second comeback event, there was much to enjoy from a contest that pitted Woods and Peyton Manning against Mickelson and Tom Brady in the The Match (2).

A total of $20m (£16.4m) was raised for Covid-19-related charities as Sunday’s event proved far more worthwhile than its grubby forerunner, when Mickelson beat Woods to pocket $9m in November 2018.

This was worthy because of the charitable aspect but it was enjoyable live sport in its own right. It was more watchable than the previous week’s initial comeback event featuring Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler and Matthew Wolff.

But as the rain pelted down it did not get off to the most promising start.

“Let’s have fun gentlemen,” said Mickelson, before carving a wild drive left of the fairway and sandy waste that protected that flank of the opening hole.

NFL greats Brady and Manning, who were playing off handicaps of 11 and nine respectively – both three shots above their official handicaps because of the difficulty of the course – struggled with their tee shots and in the early exchanges only Woods seemed capable of hitting the ball in the correct direction on the exclusive Medalist course where he is a member.

This was the first time we had seen the Masters champion play since 16 February. More back trouble forced the 44-year-old to pull out of March dates at Bay Hill and then the Players Championship, which was abandoned after one round because of the coronavirus crisis.

Here he resembled the man who plotted his way to a 15th major title at Augusta just over a year ago. Relentlessly he found fairway after fairway.

On-board cameras provided gum-chewing close-ups when Woods drove his cart between shots. The brisk thoroughness with which he dried grips on his clubs was striking – it was the first time most people will have seen him without a caddie.

Indeed, it was quite a thing to see him performing flag duties for his partner as well, but the most significant aspect was that Woods looked in control of his game and his body despite a potentially debilitating deluge.

There was plenty more to take in. Mickelson’s detailed explanation before executing a glorious chip on the second was a wonderful demonstration of his short-game mastery.

Meanwhile his NFL superstar partner struggled badly. Via social media, US Open and PGA champion Brooks Koepka pledged $100,000 for a Brady par, while NBA legend Charles Barkley taunted from the commentary booth.

Then, out of nowhere, on the seventh hole the Tampa Bay quarterback despatched his fourth shot, a 100-yard wedge, on to the green and the ball spun back into the hole for an extraordinary birdie.

Brady was back in the game, giving Barkley the benefit of his views and within minutes chatting to Koepka who joined the coverage on the phone. This was typical of a high-quality production.

It succeeded despite the weather and the strictures of social distancing for the crews on the course.

But there were times when the players struggled to contain ingrained instincts and stick to non-contact protocols aimed at preventing coronavirus transmission. This may prove an issue when the PGA Tour returns on 11 June in Texas.

Frequent gambling captions offering odds on what might happen next showed the direction American golf is currently taking. It is a decent wager these will become a staple on the PGA Tour when it capitalises on relaxed US betting rules.

The only other downside was pace of play. It took three hours to cover the front nine when the better-ball format was used.

When they switched to greensome, where alternate shots were played after choosing the more favourable drive, the action was quicker and more absorbing.

Woods and Manning were three up when Mickelson detailed how he would despatch his tee shot on the short par-four 11th. Once again he followed his words to the letter and found the green in spectacular style.

Brady then slotted the putt for an eagle two. It was fabulous fare which surely reminded older viewers in the UK of the BBC pro-celebrity series that occupied prime-time TV slots in the 1980s. (If you don’t believe me, pop ‘Terry Wogan putt’ into your search engine.)

Suddenly there was a genuine contest being played at decent pace as the golfers sought to finish before darkness set in. Eventually Woods and Manning prevailed on the final hole.

Brady had made a mess of his final tee shot. “That’s the TB we remember from the front nine,” quipped Thomas, the world number four, who proved a superb on-course commentator.

The 2017 US PGA champion spoke with wit and authority and was prepared to tell interesting stories. Aged 27, he possesses attributes likely to make him one of the game’s big characters in coming years.

By putting together four of the most recognisable names in American sport, this event succeeded in showcasing golf in many of its most interesting guises. We saw hopeless and inspired play from the hackers and true expertise from elite professionals.

It certainly whetted the appetite for the return of the competitive game which is due at Colonial in Fort Worth, Texas next month.

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