Older, Softer Tiger Teams With Rory In Seventh Edition Of The Match

Spieth and Thomas favored to take down Woods and McIlroy on Saturday night
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“The Match — now with 100% more pro golfers!”

That would be a fine slogan for a popular exhibition golf event that turned its fairways over wholesale to a quartet of star NFL quarterbacks last year, to mixed ends. In a sharp correction, this year’s 12-hole Florida installment will feature two duos involving the PGA’s biggest stars, with Tiger Woods paired with Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth paired with Justin Thomas in a best ball format under the lights this Saturday night.

It’s just the third time in The Match’s seven editions that it will feature all pros and no celebrity amateurs. Woods took on Phil Mickelson in the inaugural edition and Bryson DeChambeau went head-to-head with Brooks Koepka last November. Given The Match’s association with the PGA tour, the trio of aforementioned LIV defectors won’t be participating anytime soon.

“I love Phil and he’s been an incredible part of this. But he knows, you know,” Bryan Zuriff, the Match’s executive producer, recently told GOLF. “He went where he went, and we’re connected with the PGA Tour.”

Spieth and Thomas just teamed up for an undefeated Presidents Cup run to lead the U.S. to victory at Quail Hollow. Their stellar history, combined with Woods being in the twilight of his career, helps explain why Spieth and Thomas are -130 favorites at DraftKings and SuperBook Sports to defeat McIlroy and Woods, who are generally priced at +105 to +110 to win.

“Given the fact that this is an exhibition match that will have plenty of gimmicks, it’s not surprising to see the odds this close,” said RotoGrinders golf analyst Derek Farnsworth. “However, if this was a real match with real stakes on the line, J.T. and Spieth would have to be much bigger favorites. Their success in team events is unmatched, and there are obviously a ton of question marks with Tiger’s leg and form.”

There’s another factor in the odds being that close: The public loves to bet on Tiger, even when he’s limping half the time.

“That trend will stop when Tiger retires,” said Johnny Avello, director of race and sportsbook operations at DraftKings, which recently broke ground on a retail sportsbook at TPC Scottsdale in Arizona. “We haven’t written a lot of money on this yet because most of the money will be written on Saturday or close to Saturday, but 90 to 95 percent of the money we have written is on Tiger and McIlroy.

“It just goes to show that Tiger still draws a crowd. People love to bet on him and watch him play golf, plus he’s got a great partner here. Rory’s playing some of the best golf of his life.”

Psychological edge ‘basically gone’

Woods spent his prime as a stone-cold intimidator, icing out contemporaries (such as Mickelson) as well as younger rivals. But as his game has softened, so too has his demeanor, at the expense of any head games he may once have played.

“The major psychological edge that Tiger had in his prime is basically gone at this point,” said Farnsworth. “He’s gone from being extremely intimidating to extremely approachable. Two of his best friends are Rory and J.T., and I’m sure he has a relationship with Spieth as well. I’m sure he’ll be chirping in this match, but the psychological edge is gone, at least when it comes to these specific players.”

Avello agreed, saying, “All these guys know him well. They’re more than just acquaintances. They do have a good rapport with each other. These guys are all great golfers now. Tiger, what he once had, being able to intimidate others, those days are long gone now.”

As Farnsworth noted, Woods has said he’d like to play in five or six PGA events in the coming year. Ideally, that means three or four majors and a couple of his favorite tournaments. 

“The best-case scenario is that his leg holds up over the course of four rounds, the weather is good, and he catches lightning in a bottle at one of his favorite courses,” said Farnsworth. “The most realistic scenario is that the leg doesn’t get much better from a physical standpoint and that he’s going to have a tough time walking four rounds on courses with a lot of elevation change. All we can hope for is that the leg allows him to play in a handful of events each year.”

“To win a tournament or two, that’s possible, but it wouldn’t be a major,” added Avello. “But he won’t play in those other types of tournaments. He’s gonna play in the majors and a couple other big tournaments. The best-case scenario is he wins one more major, but I don’t see how that happens unless he plays four rounds of good golf and everybody else disintegrates.”

As Saturday’s Match draws closer, Avello said DraftKings will offer a slew of props and in-game betting markets for the event, which he thinks is at its best when some imperfect backswings are part of the equation.

“I still think it’s kind of cool when you have a mix of pro golfers and quarterbacks in there, because most of us relate to amateur golfers,” he said. “It is Tiger, so that helps, but we’d rather see a mixture.”

Photo: Kyle Terada/USA TODAY

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