The Match is headed home for the holidays, but one founding member won’t be there to celebrate.
According to longtime friend and Match executive producer Bryan Zuriff, Phil Mickelson is no longer involved with the made-for-TV event.
“I love Phil and he’s been an incredible part of this. But he knows, you know,” Zuriff told GOLF. “He went where he went, and we’re connected with the PGA Tour. So I mean, this is a PGA Tour event.”
Mickelson, who competed in four iterations of The Match, was once the event’s heartbeat. He was a natural fit for The Match’s wall-to-wall approach, and his charisma and free-wheeling nature made him the ideal character for the event driven more by its star power than its golf prowess. In The Match’s earliest iterations, Mickelson was essential in helping the event capture the sport in the goofy, friendly light Zuriff envisioned.
Now, however, Mickelson is property of LIV Golf, and The Match is in need of a new anchor.
“Unfortunately, he left the Tour, and that’s unfortunate for doing something like this,” Zuriff said.
While The Match is not owned or operated by the PGA Tour, there were a few factors driving its allegiance to golf’s biggest tour. The first, perhaps not surprisingly, is money. The Match is a commercial boon for Turner Sports, which broadcasts the event to huge audiences for surprisingly low overhead. For Turner, PGA Tour players are an easy sell to advertisers, which makes it easier for the network to generate a profit on the broadcast.
“I look at The Match as saying ‘we’re doing an event in one day that costs a lot less than what LIV’s spending in a year, and more people watch us than watch them,” Zuriff said. “I think we’re pretty smart in our business plan.”
Turner Sports’ recent acquisition by Warner Bros. Discovery also played a role, sources said. The merger with Discovery, which has its own 12-year, $2 billion international streaming rights deal with the PGA Tour, made Turner and the Tour indirect bedfellows. Had Turner pursued LIV golfers for The Match, it would undoubtedly cause a conflict of interest for their bosses, Warner Bros. Discovery’s leadership team, the same people who will pay out some $175 million to the PGA Tour in rights fees this year.
The state of golf, Zuriff said, was also a factor. From the beginning, Zuriff pitched The Match as an opportunity for golf to grow with younger, wider audiences. The goal, he says now, was to make an “additive” event to the golf space, “not a combative one.” Over the first six iterations, that effort has largely succeeded.
“We probably get more media attention for The Match than any golf event other than Augusta,” he says. “That’s insane.”
In charting a path forward, Zuriff wanted to remain true to that initial goal, even if it meant that Mickelson couldn’t be involved.
“It’s just a bummer because he’s just been a great partner for so long,” Zuriff said. “But that’s a choice that he made. He understands that when you make those choices, certain things get sacrificed. And this is one of the things that got sacrificed.”
Disappointing as Mickelson’s departure may be, those around The Match, Zuriff included, have shared excitement about the lineup set for Dec. 10, which they say is bringing the event’s long-term future into better focus.
This winter’s Match event will be just the second iteration — after the original, Tiger vs. Phil edition — to feature only professional golfers, pitting Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy against childhood friends Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth. Heading forward, Zuriff says, the goal is for two annual Match editions: one with celebrity guests in the warm weather months, and one with pro golfers in the cold weather months.
“It’s important that in the fall/winter, we do real golf,” Zuriff said. “I think the summer lends itself to more celebrity-driven events with big names. I think with that, we’ve really established the franchise.”
Zuriff couldn’t have picked a better cast to lead The Match into the new cadence. McIlroy is the Tour’s newfound elder statesman, while Thomas and Spieth are two of the sport’s more affable, well-liked figures. Woods is, of course, still Tiger Woods, which should alleviate any concerns Turner executives have surrounding the event’s ratings.
“I think you know, one of the reasons why we’re getting the big stars to do it on the PGA Tour is because they do see how it grows the game,” he said. “When people authentically, authentically talk about growing the game — I think they can be proud of growing the game through this franchise.”
Still, the bigger question, the one all four golfers will soon answer, is whether The Match can recapture some of the magic that carried it to early success in 2018 and ’20. In those early iterations, The Match stole the attention of both the sports world and the golf world. In recent years, the hype has remained, but the authenticity has suffered some. In shifting back toward “real golf,” Zuriff would seem to be angling to recapture the hardcore audience again.
But even if the golf falls flat, Zuriff says there’s a reason every golf fan should be counting down the days till December 10, and it’s — you guessed it — LIV. It’s been an interesting year in golf, and with Charles Barkley once again joining the broadcast alongside the four PGA Tour holdouts, there’s at least one thing this Match is sure to have in abundance: opinions.
“You’re really gonna get a chance to hear what these guys have to think about everything that’s happened in the last year.”