Jim Souhan
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As America smolders, I’d like to revisit the most hopeful sporting moment of the past few months — an event that raised $20 million for COVID-19 relief and provided insight into the mind-set of champions.

Usually, watching amateurs play golf is like watching cats play piano, but “The Match: Champions For Charity” on May 24 turned into a surprisingly compelling sporting event.

Tom Brady and Phil Mickelson faced Tiger Woods and Peyton Manning.

Who knows? It might wind up being the best sporting event of the year. And it should be reprised, with a different set of characters, to benefit peaceful protesters who were wrongly incarcerated or injured. Maybe Steph Curry can make the foursome this time.

As our major sports leagues strive to return to action, we are not guaranteed the quality competition to which we are accustomed.

We might see star players sitting out because of health or salary concerns. We might see stars or teams testing positive for the virus, leading to minor leaguers playing in consequential games. We might see jury-rigged playoffs and asterisks tattooed on trophies.

“The Match” provided a reminder that sport doesn’t have to be perfect to be worthwhile, as long as you have a winner, a story line and outsized personalities.

Woods and Manning defeated Mickelson and Brady 1-up in match play, as the four traded jokes and dueled to the last hole.

Turner Sports announced that “The Match” delivered the largest ratings for a golf event in cable television history. This is proof that fans are desperate for anything that resembles sport. This is also a just reward for a quality television show.

Because this wasn’t just a charity match, and it wasn’t just a glorified pro-am. “The Match” assembled a handful of the most compelling sports figures of our lifetime, and each offered a glimpse into the mentality that has made them so.

It’s fitting that the Michael Jordan documentary, “The Last Dance,” is the only sports television event rivaling “The Match” during the pandemic, because Jordan and Woods are the two most fascinating American athletes of the past 40 years.

Both have played the hero and the anti-hero. Both paused their careers while in their prime. Both were tainted by scandal. Both established themselves as perhaps the most dominant ever to play their sports.

Woods looked healthy and relaxed, and his swing looked remarkably smooth. He won his 15th major last year at the Masters and there was nothing about his performance last month to indicate he can’t contend again.

Among active golfers, only Woods can make Mickelson’s record look pedestrian. Mickelson has won 44 tournaments and five majors. If not for Woods’ victory at the 2002 U.S. Open, Mickelson would have won that tournament and would be one of six golfers to have won the career grand slam.

Mickelson also remains the world’s most polarizing golfer. The cockiness and smugness that makes some of us root against him makes him must-see TV.

Manning isn’t just the greatest regular-season quarterback in NFL history; he might be one of the great entertainers of our time. Whether as a Saturday Night Live host, a television entertainer or an athlete, he can combine humor and insight like few other sporting figures. If he chose to become a full-time broadcaster, he would immediately become the best in the business. To hear him range from needling Brady to making self-deprecating remarks about his golf game helped elevate the entire broadcast.

In terms of entertainment value, Brady was bound to be the wild card. As the Patriots quarterback, he was more regal than entertaining.

He provided the most intriguing twist of the competition. For most of the front nine, he played like a hacker, slicing shots into the trees and water. A quarterback who has won six Super Bowls, who might be the greatest ever, looked nervous and overmatched.

Then Charles Barkley, another great athlete who is a horrific golfer, began needling Brady, and Brady holed out from the fairway, then played well enough to turn a blowout into a true competition.

The event was so successful that we might see copycats, but it’s hard to imagine any foursome, or any charity event, topping this one. But it’s worth a try.

Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at TalkNorth.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com