JERSEY CITY, N.J. — It wasn’t exactly Muhammad Ali and George Foreman’s “Rumble in the Jungle,” but the Tuesday morning match between Phil Mickelson and Joel Dahmen against Harry Higgs and Keith Mitchell had the attention of everyone at Liberty National Golf Club.
Smiles and snickers were everywhere as the four walked to the first tee at 10 a.m. Rory McIlroy peaked across the fairway before teeing off on the second hole to catch the action, and Harris English called over a row of mounds on the 14th hole to get an update on the score.
In the end, Mickelson and Dahman came back from 2 down through four holes to win the 18-hole match, 3 and 1.
“I think we were all looking forward to playing today, which is great,” Mickelson said afterward. “We had a great time, and we had the right outcome, really. I think we had the outcome we all really certainly expecting, and I think, hoping for.”
It was classic Mickelson smack talk on a day filled with zingers. If you have not been following this saga, here’s the backstory.
On the Sunday before the start of the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational, Higgs decided to answer questions posted by his Twitter followers. People lobbed in questions about the best shot Higgs had ever seen, the best shot he’d ever hit and so on. Then a follower asked Higgs this:
I’ll play with anyone. And I don’t think @PhilMickelson is ready for my trash talk
— Harry Higgs (@harryhiggs1991) July 26, 2021
All talk until I get invited to one of your coveted matches big guy!!
— Harry Higgs (@harryhiggs1991) July 26, 2021
Mickelson then invited Higgs to play a match during that week’s WGC-FedEx St. Jude, knowing full well that Higgs had not qualified for the event.
Tuesday morning, after more good-natured back and forth on Twitter, the match was on, although none of the players disclosed how much was on the line.
After Mitchell’s tee shot on the first hole went into the water, Higgs made a birdie and won the hole to take a 1 up lead.
“Do you want par or Keith as your partner today,” Mickelson asked.
Twenty minutes later, after Mickelson’s second shot on the third hole came up well short of the green, Higgs returned the favor and yelled, “Hey Joel would you like a par as a partner?”
Instead of having Mickelson hit his pitch shot, Dahmen putted from 10 feet away and made his birdie. Mickelson then started pontificating about how golfers tend to miss putts on the high side of the hole when they need to make hole-halving putts. Of course, he talked loudly enough to let Higgs and Mitchell hear him, which was the point, but Mitchell made his birdie putt anyway.
“Paht-nah!” yelled Higgs.
After falling 2 down through four holes, Dahmen made a birdie on the fifth hole to win it. Then Mickelson’s drive on the sixth went so far right that it stopped in the seventh fairway. But he hit a great shot and then made an eagle putt to win the hole and square the match before making a birdie on the seventh put he and Dahmen 1 up.
While the match was going on, Mickelson was live tweeting.
It’s all coming together now folks. Joel and I both birdie 13 to go 2 up and everyone here (and on Twitter) can sense the inevitable. We should have Keith off the course well before his 2:30 deadline. You’re welcome as Bubba would say
— Phil Mickelson (@PhilMickelson) August 17, 2021
On the 17th hole, after both Higgs and Mitchell missed their birdie putts, Mickelson called out to Dahmen. “Let’s end this with an exclamation point.”
Dahmen then rolled in a 30-foot birdie putt to give him and Mickelson their 3 and 1 win.
“We lost. That would be the extent of my take,” Higgs said after walking off the 18th green. “I ran my big mouth and a Hall of Famer put me in my place. But it was fun to get out with Phil, Joel is a great friend and Keith is a great friend as well. We had a blast. I would have like to have won, but I do think it was good preparation. I had a few nerves at times, it mattered a little bit. You want to beat Phil and anyone else you are playing with, but the lead up to it created some nerves. It was fun, it was nice to experience that on a Tuesday, when you are usually just walking around looking for places where you need to hit it and not need to hit it.”
All four players wanted to win, but the most interesting thing about the match was watching the 51-year-old Mickelson interact with his partner, Dahmen (33) as well as Higgs (29) and Mitchell (29). On several occasions, he gave Dahmen a read on putts, and explained his philosophy on putting and green reading. He answered Mitchell’s questions about golf balls, and on the 17th green, gave Higgs advice about being himself and not being afraid to have fun on the course, because that’s when Higgs will play his best golf.
“Phil and I are somewhat similar in that our true selves are somewhat vivacious, if you will. I don’t know if I’m using the right word there, but it’s a big word and it sounded nice,” Higgs said. “I know my best-performing self is a bit of a showoff, someone who interacts here and there. (Phil) put it great and said there are times when you have to harness it because you know it will help you and other times where have to give it no power and basically taker care of your business on and off the golf course.”
It’s the kind of advice that John Daly could have used 25 years ago, and that Higgs, who has developed a cult following of fans thanks to his fun-loving, everyman appeal, will be wise to follow.
So will there be a rematch?
“The key is to win in a way that is not so dominant that they believe they can win, and then come back for me,” Mickelson said, speaking like a shark in a pool of gold fish. “I think they are. I think they are going to come back for me, and that was really the challenge for Joel and I.”