LAS VEGAS -- Tiger Woods looked gassed.
He looked all of his 42 years in a body held together by a bionic back that has, almost miraculously, allowed him to once again climb ever so close to the top of the golfing world, a height from which he reigned for so much of the last 20-plus years.
His signature Sunday red shirt -- worn instead on this unique Friday afternoon -- didn't seem to have that same Superman swagger we golf fans have come to expect.
Tiger had just hit a useful little bunker shot on the par-5 16th at Las Vegas' Shadow Creek Golf Course. But the ball skipped off a subtle slope, not quite grabbing enough green to pay off with a tap-in putt. Fortunately, Phil Mickelson's flop shot had fared even worse, coming up short of a spine on the green, rolling out to 40-some feet. After a Phil two-putt, Tiger had a chance to do what Tiger often does: bury a clutch 8-footer to turn The Match all square and make the small high-rollers-and-media crowd go wild, along with probably most everyone watching at home.
He missed. The putt, like so many before it on Friday, couldn't find the hole. Woods looked equal parts disgusted and deflated. He and Phil headed to the par-3 17th knowing the odds had just skyrocketed that Mickelson would fulfill his bold prophecy of closing out this megamatch with a birdie on the penultimate hole, cashing the $9 million winner-take-all prize in the process. This Black Friday was starting to look pretty green for Phil and family.
But Tiger Woods does things only Tiger does. That’s why he’s Tiger Woods. That’s why much of golfdom clamored for his comeback. Tiger. Woods. Is. Golf. Just as Jack and Arnie were before him, and Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan and Sam Snead were before them, and so forth and so on, dating all the way back to Tommy and Old Tom Morris.
Tiger Woods can’t be counted out. We doubted he could win the U.S. Open on one leg, and he gutted it out for victory at Torrey Pines in 2008. We assumed fusion surgeries, pain killers and fire hydrants would end his career, multiple times in fact, and in response he posted seven top-10 finishes in 2018, including second place at the PGA Championship and sixth at the British Open, then won the Tour Championship and just missed pocketing the $10 million FedEx Cup bonus in the process.
Tiger Woods does things only Tiger does. Especially when the pressure and cameras and hopes and dreams of golf fans everywhere are on him. And with the eyes of the relatively undistracted golf world were on him as he stepped onto the tee of the picturesque par-3 17th at Shadow Creek with the late-afternoon shadows quickly setting in.
Mickelson had the honors on 17 and fired what he had to figure was the kill shot, sticking it 10 feet short-right of the pin. Birdie looked probable, and The Match appeared destined for a decidedly unremarkable 2-and-1 result. At best, Woods was looking at 1-down with one hole to play after his tee ball flew over the flagstick and stopped just in the back fringe, making for a slippery chip to even salvage par while hoping for a Mickelson miss.
But Tiger Woods does things only Tiger does. He wedged a belly-chip perfectly to get it rolling on line from more than 20 feet away. The Bridgestone ball dove into the hole as the small crowd erupted in Shadow Creek's surreal acoustic amphitheater. Phil's early Christmas would have to wait. Or would it happen at all? This most improbable turn of events had to have some effect on Mickelson's psyche, which has been stung so often over the decades, didn't it?
"Well, I've been in Phil's head for 20-something years," Woods told TNT's Ernie Johnson smirking during a promotional appearance leading up to The Match. "Just look at the W total."
"He's done this kind of thing to me so many times," Phil would say later during the post-match prize presentation.
And as they headed to the 18th hole, the momentum swing suggested Woods would once again get the best of Mickelson, penning a final exclamation point on Tiger's story of destiny and dominance.
Then they played five more holes.
The final five holes -- including four extra holes, three of them on a 93-yard pitch-n-putt from the practice green to the 18th green -- were a surreal mix of major match play and extreme mini-golf, punctuated with two exceptional moments of sportsmanship between two mutual-respecting competitors who have shaped professional golf for the past 25 years.
Woods' second shot at the par-5 18th hole nearly duplicated his shot on the 17th, flying over the flag and coming to rest on the collar. But Tiger's shot from there would be longer and quicker than the one he'd holed just 15 minutes earlier. Meanwhile, Mickelson's solid approach found the middle of the green right of the flag, but a two-putt from beyond 30 feet was far from certain.
This time, Tiger used putter to make a great roll that slid past with a touch too much speed. But a confident stroke on the 5-foot comebacker gave him birdie. And then, in an extraordinary act of sportsmanship in a match with mind-blowing money on the line, Tiger conceded Phil's 4-footer to send the match to extra holes.
"I made my putt on the last hole [in regulation]," Woods said about his decision to give Mickelson the lengthy par putt. "For all what this has been, I didn't want to win it like that. I certainly did not want to see Phil have an opportunity to not make it."
As the course descended into darkness, the competitors headed back to the 18th tee. This time, a wayward drive from Woods forced a layup while Mickelson, 40 yards ahead and in the fairway, stayed full throttle, going for the green but coming up short with a fried-egg greenside bunker shot over a perilously close creek that PGA Tour star Justin Thomas described like this on Twitter: "Wowwww what a lie for Phil. Even he may not be able to escape this one."
Redeeming himself for substandard bunker play earlier at the par-5 seventh, he avoided disaster to salvage par, leaving Tiger with a potential game-winning 7-footer, which turned out to be a $9 million miss. And just when everyone thought Tiger would turn out the metaphoric lights, the event organizers turned on the actual lights, cut a new hole position and introduced match-play golf’s version of a hockey shootout — playing the 20th hole as a 93-yard par 3 from the Shadow Creek putting green just behind the clubhouse to the now-illuminated green.
It took three holes of the unique overtime to finally crown a champion — and Mickelson had winning putts on all three, including a power lip-out from 6 feet the second time around. But before they played this makeshift 3-par the third and final time, Phil returned the gesture of sportsmanship. As Woods called in caddie Joe Lacava for an iffy par putt, Mickelson returned Woods' regulation favor.
"I don't want to win it like this," Mickelson said as Woods lined up his par putt (and the crowd began chanting "Give. It. To. Him.") "Let's go."
The pair got it right on the 22nd and final hole. Tiger's tee shot finished about 7-and-a-half feet from the cup, and Phil followed with a shot about half that distance. When Woods' downhiller ran out of steam (much as he'd looked all day), Mickelson finally claimed the win, the $9 million prize and the commemorative championship belt buckle that came with it. This day, this victory will go a long way toward easing Phil's pain when he thinks about how he's fared in history against Tiger Woods.
"I know ‘big picture' your career is the greatest of all-time," Phil told Tiger during the post-match press conference. "I've seen you do things that are just remarkable. But just know, I will not ever let you live this one down. I will bring it up every time I see you. I will wear this belt buckle every time I see you. It's not The Masters, it's not the U.S. Open, I know. But it's something. It's just nice to have a little something on you."
And Mickelson took advantage of his newfound victory as an opportunity to needle his friend, colleague, fellow competitor and now vanquished nemesis almost immediately when asked about how The Match might serve as momentum for his 2019 season and beyond.
“The way the day played out, we played some really good golf — this is very encouraging to me, too, because I drove the ball like a stallion,” Phil said to laughter from the media. “If I can drive the ball well in the next year, next couple of years, I’m very optimistic about what that holds. So this was a very good day for me. I thought we played some very good golf. We had the opportunity to go head to head, and it was back and forth. I think it was exciting. We felt the pressure. ... I thought that this was a good opportunity now for us to head into next year and continue this on Sundays.”
Meanwhile, Tiger’s assessment of his own performance came down to a familiar foe throughout his comeback.
"It was an entertaining match. We went out there and played hard. I had plenty of opportunities to make putts today, and I didn't make any putts to put a little pressure on Phil. I had an opportunity to win the match, and I hit a bad putt. And then in extra holes — how do you not hit a green with lob wedge? Twice. So that was an opportunity wasted. Phil capitalized on it.”
In the grand scheme of golf, The Match probably doesn't mean much. But it does add another chapter to the competitive relationship of two legends of the game. And if there's never another major Sunday where these two battle it out, Phil can still wear that Italian belt he won on Friday (when properly sized) and remind Woods of the one big notch in it.