Prime-time golf will be back, but will anyone be watching?

RANCHO SANTA FE, Calif. -- Not even Tiger Woods and three top players could stop the television ratings from sliding in Monday Night Golf.

The national rating for the "Battle at the Bridges" was 4.6 with an 8 share, the lowest in the five years since ABC Sports began televising the prime-time exhibitions.

Does this mean the end of hit-and-giggle golf under the lights?

Not if Ernie Els has a vote.

"We want revenge," Els said after he and Woods -- the best two players in golf -- never led in a best-ball match and lost, 3 and 1, to Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia.

This was the first of a three-year contract with the Bridges at Rancho Santa Fe, where the views from the foothills north of San Diego are spectacular, the houses look like palaces and memberships start at $325,000.

Plus, Woods has a deal with Disney-owned ABC to broadcast the matches.

The trick is finding either a format or group of players more appealing.

This one brought together the best players in golf at the end of last year. Woods, Mickelson, Els and Garcia were the top four in the rankings.

That changed by the time the first tee went into the ground Monday night. Woods and Els were Nos. 1 and 2, with a combined nine victories this year. On the other hand, Mickelson had dropped out of the top 10 for the first time in more than five years (No. 11) and Garcia was No. 14.

Neither of them had won this year -- until Monday night.

Garcia, who gave Woods his only other loss in prime time three years ago at Bighorn, made a 6-foot birdie putt to halve the 14th hole, then hit a 3-wood under the lights, over the water and into 30 feet for eagle on the 16th to effectively close out the match.

Mickelson did his part with a deft short game to protect the lead.

"Obviously, Sergio and I have not played to our level of expectations, and I don't know what to say about that," Mickelson said. "On any given day, anyone can beat anybody. Sergio and I played well, and we beat the best two players in the world.

"Hopefully, this will give us confidence the rest of the year."

What this does for the next "Battle at the Bridges" remains to be seen.

Despite the increasingly lower ratings, the numbers are still higher than for most regular PGA Tour events in which Woods doesn't play.

And unlike Monday Night Football in the preseason, Woods does not come out after the first couple of holes and get replaced by Andrew Magee.

The national rating was 5.1 a year ago, when Woods and Jack Nicklaus beat Garcia and Lee Trevino in a clash of the generations at Bighorn in the California desert.

The year before, Woods and Annika Sorenstam defeated David Duval and Karrie Webb in a mixed-team match that lacked personality and quality golf in an alternate-shot format.

Woods handpicked this year's teams, wanting to modernize "Challenge Golf" from decades ago, when Arnold Palmer and Gary Player were a formidable team.

"I was the American. Ernie was the South African. We took on anybody," Woods said. "And we got waxed."

The made-for-TV exhibitions began in 1999 when Woods and Duval, at the time jockeying for No. 1 in the world, played at Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Woods won, and the national rating was 6.9.

It moved to Bighorn under a three-year deal, and Garcia made a birdie putt on the final hole to beat Woods. At 7.6, that was the highest national rating.

"They've all been different," Woods said. "That's been the fun part to play in a special event like this. It's different every year, and it's a different challenge."

The next challenge is finding something -- or someone -- that will give the ratings a boost. Either that, or giving Els and Woods a shot at revenge.