Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 20, 2010

Rivalries, Then And Now

Like a lot of fans my age, the golfer who popularized the game for me was Arnold Palmer. With his good looks and go-for-broke style of play, Palmer was the perfect player to bring golf into the television era in the late ‘50’s and early ‘60’s. At the 1960 U.S. Open, he staged the greatest charge in major championship history, rallying from seven strokes back after 54 holes with a final round 65. He began that epic performance by driving the green of the short par four first at Cherry Hills Country Club, setting up a two-putt birdie.

Palmer also contributed mightily to solidifying the concept of four major golf championships. After the Bobby Jones era few American golfers were willing to make the trip overseas to compete in the Open Championship, which offered a modest purse and unfamiliar, links-style golf. But Palmer was convinced that the oldest championship in golf deserved to be contested by the game’s best players. His participation, not to mention back-to-back victories in 1961 and 1962, helped make the Open a mandatory stop for all of the top PGA Tour pros.

Throughout his career Palmer displayed an uncommon flair for the dramatic. Even at his 62nd and last PGA Tour victory, he rammed in a lengthy putt from across the green to seal the win at the 1973 Bob Hope Desert Classic. Had the ball not hit the back of the cup it might well still be rolling all these many years later; but of course, it did hit the back of the cup.

At the 1960 U.S. Open, largely unnoticed in the midst of Palmer’s dramatic final round was the identity of the eventual runner-up. An overweight amateur from Columbus, Ohio, twenty year old Jack Nicklaus finished two strokes behind. Two years later there would be no ignoring Nicklaus as he beat Palmer by three strokes in an 18 hole Monday playoff to make the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont his first professional victory. At the time as a young Palmer fan I didn’t much like “Fat Jack’s” rise to prominence. But in retrospect the rivalry between the two that played out over much of the 1960’s and early ‘70’s was enormously beneficial for professional golf. Both men developed huge fan bases that provided the foundation for dramatic growth in the game’s popularity.

For most of the decade plus since Tiger Woods turned pro in 1996, golf commentators have been searching in vain for a similar rivalry. Yes, Ernie Els has finished second to Tiger more than any other golfer; and yes Vijay Singh briefly supplanted Woods as the world’s top-ranked player in 2004 while Woods was in the midst of remaking his swing. But by and large Woods has simply been so overwhelmingly dominant that golf fans everywhere recognized that he had no true rival.

Maybe, just maybe, that’s changing. When he won The Masters by three strokes in April Phil Mickelson moved into second place among active golfers on the list of major championship winners. To be sure, his four majors are dwarfed by Tiger’s fourteen, but then in the end Arnie’s seven were likewise dwarfed by Jack’s eighteen. But while Mickelson hasn’t and won’t win nearly as many majors (or regular tournaments) as Woods, he does rank with Tiger on the ability to contend. Aside from their respective number of wins, Mickelson has twenty-one top ten finishes in seventy-one major appearances, while Woods has nineteen top tens in fifty-seven appearances. That’s a reasonably comparable 30% rate of contending for Lefty to 33% for Tiger. While nothing beats winning, being part of the weekend conversation boosts fan interest and television ratings.

The possibility of a competitive rivalry is also enhanced by some apparent chinks in Tiger’s once-impregnable armor. Last August at the PGA Championship, Woods entered the final round with a two-shot lead on playing partner Y. E. Yang. Woods had never failed to seal the deal in a major when leading after 54 holes. But at Hazeltine National that streak came to an end as Yang shot a steady two under par 70 while Woods ballooned to a 75. This season, since returning from his self-imposed four month, Tiger’s game has been anything but flawless. An occasionally brilliant but overall erratic performance at The Masters was followed by a missed cut at Quail Hollow and an injury-induced withdrawal at The Players Championship. That in turn was followed by the announcement that Woods and swing coach Hank Haney were parting company.

While Woods searches for his game, Mickelson seems at last to have fully grown into his. Long known for a willingness to try almost any shot, his daring style often produced incredible results, but nearly as often gave fans the perverse pleasure that comes from watching a train wreck. When he unnecessarily went for broke and imploded on the final hole of the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot some suggested he was finished as a contender at major championships. Those same folks spent more than two years congratulating themselves as over the next nine majors Mickelson had more missed cuts (two) than top ten finishes (one). But what they chose to ignore was that during this time Mickelson went through his own change in swing coaches. Once fully adjusted to the changes recommended by Butch Harmon, he recorded three consecutive major top tens in 2008 and 2009 before leaving the tour for a time after his wife and mother were both diagnosed with breast cancer. His performance this April at Augusta National gave every indication that he is once again fully focused on his game; and his shot from the pine straw on #13 Sunday afternoon was as swashbuckling as anything Arnie ever pulled off.

Tiger Woods will always be the preeminent player of his era (which is why the era will be known as his). His shot making ability and unparalleled focus haven’t been seen inside the ropes since, well, since Jack Nicklaus. And Phil Mickelson will always toil to some degree in Tiger’s shadow, much like Palmer did with Nicklaus starting in 1962. But there’s a difference between being overshadowed and overmatched.

Before this year’s Masters, Mickelson acknowledged that having Woods playing, and playing well, was important in that it helped to motivate him and raise the level of his own game. There is a maturity in that comment that one would not have seen in Phil a few years ago. While Tiger will no doubt best Phil more often than not in the years to come, I think that result can no longer be considered automatic. If that proves to be the case, it will be good for the game of golf.

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