BELLEAIR, Fla. — Upon first sight of Tiger Woods on Saturday night at Pelican Golf Club, things seemed pretty dire. Ninety minutes before balls were in the air, Woods was literally using a golf club as a cane as he made his way to Bleacher Report’s “hot seat press conference,” where he, partner Rory McIlroy and their opponents Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth fielded a number of fan questions delivered by rising TV star Smylie Kaufman.
Yes, we knew he had plantar fasciitis. We knew, in his words, that he “couldn’t walk,” hence his withdrawal from last week’s Hero World Challenge. But still, even with the aid of a golf cart at the seventh iteration of The Match, this did not look like a man who was in any physical shape o compete at a high level. His late arrival to the range and noticeable limp everywhere he walked screamed “I’m still not quite ready for this.”
And yet, he tried anyway. He gutted it out. He grimaced and he grinded through it. That’s what he’s always done, and Saturday night was no different.
And then, he birdied the opening hole! Never mind that it was a 310-yard par 4 that all the guys nearly drove. He was one under through one—the PGA Tour app notification you dream about any time the Big Cat tees it up. The fun didn’t last much longer, however, with Thomas and Spieth grabbing control at the second and never letting go, eventually closing out a hobbled Woods and a rusty Rory on the 10th hole of the scheduled 12-hole affair.
Here are seven on-site observations from The Match.
Tiger Woods has a ways to go
I realize we sort of just covered this, but it was the biggest takeaway from Saturday night by far. He was nowhere near ready, but given the weight of this made-for-TV commitment, Woods sort of “had” to be here. Obviously, the cart was likely the deciding factor in him actually giving it a go, just like it will be at next week’s PNC Championship (well, Charlie dying to play is a big factor, too). But, man, this is a dude in some serious, serious pain. It’s still thrilling to see him peg it in person or on the couch, but you have to wonder if it’s even worth it anymore. Yes, there were highlights like the birdie at one, some vintage iron shot-club twirl combos on the par 3s, and he even stepped on a driver on the long-drive hole, coming up just short of Thomas’ nuke. But Woods still couldn’t buy a putt (a common theme as he continues to age) and it all just looked like much more of a struggle than it should be. Given how he performed in the three events he actually played in last year and given how he looks now, it’s hard to imagine Tiger completing a 72-hole tournament any time in the near or even semi-distant future. Knowing him, he’ll turn up at Augusta National and try to gut it out, but it’s going to become less and less fun watching him do so in so much pain when the reward might be a top-40 finish.
Golf under the lights is sick (no surprise there)
Now that we’ve gotten the somber part out of the way, let’s get to the fun stuff: Golf under the lights is as sick as we all thought it would be. Caught myself multiple times in awe of the freaking moon being out while four of the greatest golfers on the planet duked it out in primetime. The cost of bringing in the lights and the generators had to be astronomical, so it’s hard to see this becoming the norm for this event. Then again, if it’s a once-a-year deal, why the hell not? The Friday Night Lights energy the event gave off will be hard to top in future iterations.
Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas were made for made-for-TV
Let’s be clear: These events will never provide the completely unfiltered, NSFW-material we all hope for, but with the right personalities they can still produce the goods. That’s what Thomas and Spieth brought to the table on Saturday night, in addition to playing some damn good golf:
These two seemed to embrace the fun element straight from the get-go, aided by some liquid courage, of course. They both seemed to accept it for what it is—you and your close buddy trying to have as much PG-13 fun as possible while also hitting some world-class golf shots and remaining as competitive as ever. Woods and McIlroy, meanwhile, appeared a little more stiff, literally and figuratively. This was never a fair fight, and Thomas and Spieth—fittingly both in shorts while the other two wore pants—seemed to have entertained enough to be penciled in for the next one of these.
These are “made-for-TV” in every sense of the phrase
Between the Las Vegas Match with the four NFL quarterbacks and this one, it’s abundantly clear that these made-for-TV events are … made-for-TV. Yes, it sounds very Captain Obvious-y, but these events are borderline impossible to follow in person, and there were a lot of people at this one trying to follow it. With only four players zooming from shot to shot in their carts, non-stop commercials halting the actually crisp pace of play, and the way they set up the course like a maze to get the best 12 holes on television, it’s not the best on-site experience (it took me until Thomas was putting with his 5-wood to realize that was the one-club challenge hole). But it’s not supposed to be—hence, the made-for-TV label.
That said, it was a who’s-who of athletes and … political figures??
OK, so there was only one political figure, and it was unsurprisingly the Governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis. Please do NOT take this in the wrong direction, but seeing a larger-than-life political figure remains is a sight unlike any other. Between the security cavalcade, the way they exit a vehicle, the way everyone’s neck snaps afterward, the way they are always in I-desperately-need-your-vote mode, it’s all just an absolute scene. Those who attended the 2017 Presidents Cup at Liberty National in person know exactly what I’m talking about.
As for non-political figures, it was truly a who’s who. New York Yankees legend Tino Martinez was in the house, as were former Yankees Nick Swisher and Corey Kluber. Tampa Bay Buccaneer great Ronde Barber was also poking around, and on the ninth hole, half of the Tampa Bay Lightning roster made an appearance after beating their in-state rival, the Florida Panthers, 4-1 earlier in the day. Smylie Kaufman (not a hockey guy) struck up a conversation with one of them and asked “what position do you play?” followed by “have you been in the league long?” The player he was talking to was Steven Stamkos, who is in his 15th season with the Bolts and has scored over 1,000 points in the National Hockey League. You’ll have to forgive Kaufman, whose home state of Alabama is not exactly a hockey hotbed.
The Pelican Golf Club/Augusta National comparisons are warranted
Reminder: Pelican Golf Club is in Florida, so to even compare the topography to Augusta National feels blasphemous. Butttt, this place sure as hell gave off some big Augusta vibes, from the perfectly manicured (and perfectly green) fairways to the treacherous green complexes (shoutout Donald Ross) to the bunkering and everything in between. It’s no coincidence that Fred Ridley, the chairman of Augusta National, is a member at Pelican, and yes, Ridley was in attendance on Saturday evening. The men on the PGA Tour would eat this place alive, but for now it seems like an ideal venue for the Pelican Women’s Championship that will next year be The Annika—for Annika Sorenstam, who was happily in attendance on Saturday.
After the season he had, there’s no sense in calling him out for meh play in an exhibition match. But yeah, it almost felt like he wasn’t even there at times. Tiger is Tiger, so he’ll always command 95 percent of the attention, but it felt like the other five percent almost belonged exclusively to JT and Spieth. Again, it was tough to follow in person, but sure seemed like McIlroy didn’t say, or do, much that caught anyone’s eye. That tends to happen when you go 3-down through four, though.