Ten million dollars, two great golfers, one match-play event.
Tiger versus Phil. Who ya got?
Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are on the back nine of their careers, and maybe they’ll never win another major between them. But that doesn’t mean they still can’t win the public’s attention. If they really pull off the match-play, winner-take-all $10 million round they’ve been negotiating for months, who wouldn’t watch?
Who wouldn’t take this next chapter in a story that planted its seeds back in April, when at the Masters the two onetime rivals turned recent friends chose to play a practice round together. The reaction to that rare pairing was immediate and overwhelming, delighting fans of the game who’d watched these two American stars define the sport for a generation, but always, it seemed, from opposite sides.
Separated by a few years in age (Phil 48, Tiger 42) and a more than a few major titles (Tiger 14, Phil 5), their side-by-side careers have long captivated us regardless of any gap, driving the sport to unprecedented levels of popularity. A modern day Arnie and Jack in whom similarities (young American golfing prodigies grown into bona fide stars, both driven by intense competitiveness to win) and differences (Phil a crowd favorite everyman, Tiger a more aloof beyond-reach supernova) have driven a near-perfect narrative of rivalry.
And a near-perfect understanding of marketing. When paired at the recent Players Championship, the seeds of that initial match-play idea revealed deeper roots.
“The excitement that’s been going on around here, it gets me thinking: Why don’t we just bypass all the ancillary stuff of a tournament and just go head to head and just have kind of a high-stakes, winner-take-all match,” Mickelson told reporters. “Now, I don’t know if he wants a piece of me, but I just think it would be something that would be really fun for us to do, and I think there would be a lot of interest in it if we just went straight to the final round.”
Tiger, already in on the joke, said, “I’m definitely not against that. We’ll play for whatever makes him uncomfortable.”
Bring. It. On.
Which got us thinking. What other mano a mano sports battles would we love to see? If we could cross generations and suspend time, what athletes would we bring together to face each other at their peaks? A few ideas:
Tiger vs. Jack
Let’s stick with golf, and imagine for a moment Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods as contemporaries. The two alpha males going at it, matching profiles of intimidation, matching nerves of major steel. The relationship between the two has been nothing but gracious as Tiger chased Jack’s all-time major mark of 18, the young cub always casting his inspiration in glowing terms, the big Bear always a believer in the cub’s ability to surpass him. But something tells me the friendliness would disappear were they both teeing off on the same hole on a major Sunday.
Pick here: Nicklaus.
Serena vs. Steffi
With Wimbledon heading toward its championship Sunday and Serena Williams still rolling, we are bombarded with reminders of just how much she has dominated her sport. She already owns 23 major singles titles, yet this run to the Wimbledon final might be the most impressive feat of all, coming as it does after she gave birth to her daughter a mere 10 months ago and survived serious postpartum complications. Steffi Graf, whose 22 majors Williams most recently passed, had her own rivalry with Monica Seles snuffed out by a deranged knife-wielding fan. But imagine taking her 1988 form (Golden Slam, four majors, Olympic gold) against Serena’s 2013 season (13 finals, 11 titles)? Serena’s power and serve versus Graf’s athleticism and court coverage? What a match it would be.
Pick here: Williams.
Rocket vs. Bonds
Baseball doesn’t lend itself to mano a mano battles in the way of tennis or golf, but power pitcher versus power hitter is about as close as we get. Who wouldn’t have loved to see Red Sox era Roger Clemens (how about the 1986 version who went 24-4?) take on a kid making his major league debut in Pittsburgh that same year? Even before steroid accusations tainted Barry Bonds’s prodigious home run feats, he was the best pure hitter in the game. Imagine his 1992 MVP season with the Pirates being in the same division as Clemens’s ’86 self? Pure fireworks.
As it happened, the two met only four times (preseason excluded), twice in the All-Star Game (1988 and 2001), and never with Clemens as a member of the Sox. A 2002 Giants-Yankees game saw Bonds make four plate appearances against Clemens, with three walks (two intentional) and a hit by pitch. A 2004 Giants-Astros game saw him go 0 for 2 with two called strikeouts and an intentional walk.
Pick here: Bonds for the home run. (And hey, while we’re at it, can we get Carl Yastrzemski a couple of official at-bats against Tom Seaver?)
Sampras vs. Federer
Two players whose profiles in class barely merit a catchy nickname, imagine a Wimbledon showdown between two grass-court wizards. Oh they played, but the 2001 fourth-round match served more as a torch passing than true barometer. Then but 19 years old, Roger Federer’s fourth-round win snapped Pete Sampras’s five-year Wimbledon winning streak, and when the six-time time champ lost in the second round the following year, he retired soon after. Federer would, of course, go on to win eight Wimbledon titles.
Imagine if they played there with Fed in 2006 form (three Grand Slams, 16 finals in 17 tournaments entered) and Sampras in 1997 form (fifth straight year at No. 1, 10–1 won–loss record against top-10 opponents and undefeated in eight singles finals). Sampras’s serve and volley against Federer’s return game would be epic.
Pick here: Federer.
James vs. Jordan
Everybody’s favorite fantasy involves the two greatest basketball players of them all, and the debate over who is better — LeBron James or Michael Jordan — will rage on as long as we are playing sports. Pick Jordan if you believe he elevated every player around him more than LeBron ever could. Pick LeBron if you believe he did more with less than Jordan ever did. Pick Michael if you credit his undefeated record in NBA Finals, a nod to the greatest competitive streak of them all. Pick LeBron if you credit eight straight Finals appearances enough of a feat to merit GOAT status. But wouldn’t it be fun to put them on the court in their primes, driving the lane, setting up from three, fighting to 21 as if on their childhood driveway?
Pick here: Jordan (And hey, while we’re at it, can we give Larry Bird-Magic Johnson the driveway undercard?)
. . .
Well, World Cup Sunday won’t bring us a Ronaldo-Messi dream battle for soccer’s ultimate crown, just as Wimbledon won’t deliver another daring round of Federer-Rafael Nadal, but as sports fans we can always dream. Whether it’s Mike Tyson against Muhammad Ali, Carl Lewis racing Usain Bolt, or Katarina Witt skating against Yuna Kim, give us your best idea.
Who ya got?Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan
@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.