As a silly-season event, The Match: Champions for Charity could not have been more successful. First, it had as participants crossover stars, and arguably the four biggest, from two sports. Second, it had a format that lent well to remote appreciation; with the novel coronavirus pandemic still requiring quarantine protocols that prevented spectators to be on site, it provided ample opportunity for spectacular golf, not to mention friendly ribbing. And, third, it had a good cause; it wound up raising a whopping $20 million to fund COVID-19 relief efforts.
The Match: Champions for Charity ended up generating the highest ratings in cable recession history. And because it managed to exceed already oversized expectations, plans were naturally drawn up for a third iteration. There was one problem, however. The very factors that turned it into a certified hit likewise served to make it untenable for its biggest draw. Indeed, Tiger Woods proved, at best, to be a grudging party to the endless ribbing among the competitors. Make no mistake; he could dish it out just as well as Phil Mickelson, Tom Brady, and Peyton Manning did. He just didn’t want to in front of the cameras. Moving forward, the producers were left with no choice but to exclude him from plans.
In the absence of the extremely private Woods, The Match III: Champions for Change was green-lit with just about nothing left sacred. That Charles Barkley, whose claim to fame involved a notorious hitch that even weekend hackers did not possess, would be tapped was a masterstroke in counter-programming; what skills he lacked while he was swinging a club, he more than made up for in the times he wasn’t. Meanwhile, Mickelson and Manning remained naturals with cameras and microphones nearby, while newcomer Steph Curry had both the low handicap and affable personality to complete the foursome.
Not that Woods didn’t have any presence at all in the Thanksgiving feature. Six months removed from his starring role in the previous event, he got things going with presents for Barkley; he gave the hoops Hall of Famer a traffic cone, a reflectorized vest, and an airhorn — all for assistance in anticipated trouble. The results, however, showed that The Round Mound of Up and Down needed no such gear. Pride got the better of the temptation for self-deprecation, and tons of practice prior to the exhibition paid off.
Indeed, Barkley would go on to win, thanks in large measure to a great start that more than made up for a shaky finish. He had a perfect partner in Mickelson, whose predisposition to teach, and teach, and teach, served him in good stead, calming his nerves under pressure and becoming his sounding board in serious and funny moments alike. To be sure, it helped his cause that Curry and Manning played well below prognoses and thus tilted the odds in his favor. Looking back, he can hold his head high and say he did better — make that much better — than them.
Granted, Barkley wasn’t perfect. Far from it. He still had shots and shanks that he would have liked to take back. That said, he was shocking steady early on, and then often enough, to acquit himself on the course. He and Mickelson won with plenty to spare, and he left Stone Canyon with a deserved smile on his face. In surviving the heckles from his Inside The NBA co-hosts, he made all and sundry remember that golf is entertainment, too. He also made all and sundry forget about Woods, even for just a while.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.