Golf’s Next Rivalry

If you ever want to spark up a good 19th hole conversation, just post this question to your golf buddies: “What is golf’s greatest rivalry?”  If you’re sitting with some golf historians, you’ll likely get some great stories as they recount the early days of modern golf when Ben Hogan and Sam Snead were routinely battling it out.  If you’re sharing a post-round beer with someone in their 40’s or early 50’s, they’ll talk of another great rivalry– Tom Watson vs. Jack Nicklaus.  Maybe Nicklaus and Trevino would get tossed around as well.

Then of course, anyone who’s ever paid much attention to the game of golf has certainly heard of what is likely the greatest rivalry in the history of the game, Jack Nicklaus vs. Arnold Palmer.  I’m too young to remember any of this rivalry, but as a student of the game, I have read many stories about these two great players. I would love to have been able to witness some of the amazing battles they shared over the years.  From 1958 through 1980, either Palmer or Nicklaus enjoyed a top-three finish in at least one major every year, except 1969. During this period, Palmer had 36 top-10s in Grand Slam events and Nicklaus had a whopping 59.  It seemed everyone was either a Palmer fan or a Nicklaus fan, truly making this one of the greatest rivalries in not just golf, but all sports.

What about the 22 year old kid sitting at the table sharing in this conversation?  His response is likely going to be something of a puzzled one.

“There aren’t any rivalries in golf. What do you mean?”

Unfortunately, he’d be right too.  Professional golf has been longing for the next great rivalry for most of the past 30 years or so.  In that time we’ve seen some great players, but the biggest story in this young golfer’s lifetime is the Tiger Woods era.  Since turning pro in 1996, Woods has been on track to re-write the record books, doing much of his damage without a primary rival to his throne of golf’s greatest player.

Contenders or Pretenders

Since 1996, many players appeared to be a legitimate rival to Tiger’s assault on the record books.  Guys like David Duval, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh all tried for a while, but ultimately they never had the staying power to challenge Woods for very long.  Who could forget El Nino, Sergio Garcia bursting onto the scene in 1999 at the PGA Championship?  A tournament the young 19 year old would finish runner up….to Tiger Woods of course.  Several players were almost there, but nobody actually stepped up to be that guy for much more than a season or two.

The one guy that has been around the most up to this point has been Phil Mickelson, but is it fair to call Tiger and Phil a rivalry?  When you compare it to the rivalries of the past, it isn’t even close.  Golf fans have wanted this to become the next great rivalry, and many times it seemed like we were so close to having it, but it just never came to be.  It had all the making of a great rivalry too. They never really seemed to get along real well, there were comments made to the media regarding “inferior equipment” and stories of tension in Ryder Cups they shared, but as much as the fans begged for it, we never really got what we desired.  Don’t get me wrong. Phil Mickelson has had an outstanding career, but other than a few years being a (very) distant 2nd in the official world golf rankings, he has never really become that consistent rival to Tiger.

Next man up

 By all accords, it would appear that we finally have our guy!  Rory McIlroy burst onto the world golf scene as a highly touted youngster from Northern Ireland a few years ago.  Like me, you may have thought, oh brother, here we go again.  Only this guy doesn’t seem to be another flash in the pan like El Nino, nor does he show any signs of a balky putter ala Ernie Els when the pressure is on.  This kid is legit and he’s here to stay.  As we begin the 2013 season, Rory is the one standing atop golf’s mountain. Is this the rival to Tiger we’ve all longed for over much of the last 16 or 17 years?

Before the recent resurgence of Tiger’s game, we had a clear cut case of two golfers going in opposite directions.  Every jump Rory took upwards in the rankings seemed to be countered by an equally large drop by Woods. The 2012 season was a preview of what we could see between these two. We watched them paired up in a dozen or so events throughout the year, and while not every event was won by one of these guys, they did live up to the billing. This was especially true at the Honda Classic when we saw Tiger make that final round charge we have all so desperately been missing.  Rory showed his mettle and wound up taking the trophy and the #1 spot in the world that day.  Golf fans everywhere can hardly contain their excitement. It appears that we finally have what we’ve wanted for so long.  The 2013 season just has to be packed with weekly showdowns by the world’s top 2 golfers.  Or does it?

It was recently announced that Rory would be joining Tiger in the Nike Golf camp; making this can’t miss summer hit even more entertaining.  But what if it doesn’t pan out?  What if we don’t get a summer of Rory and Tiger taking first and second in every event they enter together (again, roughly 12 or so)?  What happens if guys like Dustin Johnson (already a winner in 2013), Nick Watney (another new Nike guy), Keegan Bradley (already a major winner and Ryder Cup star), Luke Donald (world #3) or any of the countless young stars that walk the fairways of the PGA Tour continue their fearless assault on the leader boards this year?  That’s not to discount some of the guys I’ve already mentioned as past Tiger challengers. We know Phil will make his presence felt and Ernie showed us the Els of old last year by winning the British Open.  Sergio Garcia showed us that perhaps his best golf is still in front of him as well.  There are countless guys that will challenge each and every week on the PGA Tour and that very point could be exactly why we haven’t, and may never again, see a rivalry like some of the great ones of the past.  The fields week in and week out on the PGA Tour are so deep. One needs to look no further than the Sony Open, where we saw Russell Henley win in his first official event on Tour.  These young guys are coming onto the PGA Tour confident, battle tested and ready to win against the game’s very best.

That to me is the difference between the eras of Hogan, Palmer, Nicklaus and Watson and what we see now on the PGA Tour.  They didn’t have the same depth of field. Tiger doesn’t have to worry about one single player. For most of his career, he has had a field full of guys that are capable of winning on the biggest stage every time they tee it up.  The product we see is, in my opinion, better than ever.  Of course, we want to turn on our TV and see recognizable names leading the big events on the weekend and that’s not going to change.  Just don’t be surprised or disappointed when a young and previously unknown guy steals the show once in a while.

The days of two guys battling it out for the top spot in the sport are likely well past us.  I know everyone loves a rivalry, but you have to like what you’re seeing when you have a field with so many players able to step on the gas and run away with the trophy. In my opinion, what we are seeing now is the new normal. Themodern era of the PGA Tour has the deepest field and best quality golfers we have ever seen.  So as for Tiger vs. Rory, the buildup has already taken place and the stage is set.  I know that every week they are playing together will present another opportunity to see the two best players in the world stare each other down and make fireworks.  I will certainly be tuning in as often as possible, because it’s bound to happen.  We have been waiting so long for this, and we deserve it.

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  • That is a well thought out and written article Jason. I have to be honest and say that I miss the days of two golfers going head to head, it brought an air of excitement to the game that I find lacking today in many tournaments. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think golf is boring now but I miss the guys matching shot for shot and the excitement that goes with rooting for your favorite golfer in the middle of a showdown. I love this article!

  • It’s interesting that we don’t have a modern day rivalry. I know most are hungry for one but that Mano y Mano situation has yet to show it’s head. Will there be a TW vs RM, we can only hope.
    I honestly think the rivalry of the past decade has been TW vs the field. He has been a one man army, thwarting any challenges.

  • Great article Jake! That 33 year stat about Nicklaus & Palmer is incredible, I really had no idea.

    While there are likely to be some good rivalries over the course of a few years, I fear that we will never again see ones like we did in the second half of the 1900’s. There is simply TOO many really good players to allow for a 2 man rivalry to last too long.

  • Great job Jason. I think you’re right that today there are just to many quality players on tour for there to be a true 2 man rivalry. But the quality of the tour has never been better.

  • Great article jake!

  • Nice write up man. I don’t think Rory is there yet. This feels to me like each year when the media tried to name the “next” Michael Jordan. Rory has all the tools but it is way too soon to appoint him as the “next” one.

  • Great article Jake! It’ll be difficult given the strength of the fields these days but I think the Tiger / Rory rivalry has a chance.

  • Nice article Jason. As you say, I think depth of field has a lot to do with it. The quality of the Tour is better.

    I think Rory is well-rounded for his young age. Seems to understand that while golf (his career), is important, there are other areas of life that are equally important.

  • Great read Jason. I completely agree with your take on all the new young talent firing up in the ranks. Guy’s like Brian Stuard, Jimmy Walker, Josh Teater and Russell Knox seem to have something to say about the leader board lately, not to mention a a full stable of older talent that are not so old who have suddenly started getting their games in shape. Watch the Watney’s, Mahan’s and Johnson’s out there start putting things together and we may see a few more years of this “Anyone’s” game type golf.

  • Loved this!

  • Great job Jason and I would think there are enough young guns to spawn into some pretty interesting rivalries in the not too distant future. One of my picks is Russell Henly butting heads with someone. Not sure who but it will happen. I think Rory will have a slump this year just as camilo villegas did when he left Cobra. It will be an interesting year for sure!

  • Just an absolutely incredible read, Jake. Very well written. I enjoyed that a ton.

  • I’m not sure this is a real rivalry yet or just one they are trying to create. I think it can be one, but I am not sure it’s actually a true rivalry. Yet. It’s been a long time since we have seen a true golf rivalry so it would be kind of nice if it were to happen.

  • Great article Jake. Lots of good thoughts in there!

  • Excellent article.

  • Great thoughts Jake. Golf’s just simply more accessible for folks these days and the fact is, almost anyone out of about 50 guys can be considered when picking winners for the Majors in 2013. The gap from the world’s best to the world’s 75th ranked golfer is considerably smaller. While I’d prefer a handful of guys dominating week in and week out, and battling each other for titles, it’s just not going to happen. We see what happens when a rookie like Russell Henley gets hot, he can’t be beat. We see what happens when a veteran like Phil gets hot, he wins wire to wire. What sucks is that there could be a decent rivalry between Tiger and Phil. Imagine if Tiger was playing this weekend at Pebble. Both guys coming off wins, the Tour could have paired them together and it would’ve been a media circus. Alas, no Tiger in the field, and we won’t see Phil at the Match Play. Perhaps scheduling has a lot to do with it? I don’t know. Anyway, nice thoughts Jake. I enjoyed your perspective on things.

  • Great article Jake !
    I’m not sure we will ever see another rivalry like Jack and Arnie, even though we all want that. With as many top tier players coming out every year, I think something like a 2 person dominance/rivalry is less likely to happen. But….we can always hope for one!

  • Excellent article! Very well written. Great job

  • Nice post Jason,

    I think it will very difficult to have another rivalry to the likes of Nicklaus and Palmer.

    The depth of men’s professional golf is so strong at present it doesn’t allow for only a couple of golfers to dominate. Yes Tiger, Rory and Phil will continue to win golf tournaments but there will be a continuous stream of new winners every year.

    I think it is still going to make for some exciting golf in 2013 and beyond!

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