While golf fans everywhere have yearned for a rival for Tiger Woods, the reality is that Tiger has long been a golfer without a true peer. As the landscape of Woods’ life and golf game has changed, it appears that this may as well. So while we continue to watch Tiger challenge Rory McIlroy throughout this year’s Fed Ex Cup, let’s reflect on the players who have mounted the biggest challenge to Tiger’s supremacy.
1) Rory McIlroy – Tiger Woods is smart enough to know that Rory McIlroy is different. He’s seen a lot of up and coming “young guns” come up hot only to flame out, but in Rory he sees more of… himself. He sees an uber-talented kid winning majors in his early twenties. He sees that he’s similarly unflappable. He sees that he’s almost untouchable at the moment. But most importantly, he sees that he has that sixth gear that only the greats possess and that he wants it. He wants it bad.
But while Rory only has two major victories in his young career, both were by a Woods-like 8 shots. I’m not here to say that Woods and McIlroy will go on to hold a similar place in golf history – I don’t think they will – but I’m here to say that Rory is better than Tiger right now, and Tiger knows it. Tiger will 100 percent bounce back from whatever you want to call the lull he’s in right now to challenge Rory for what has so long been his – the title of the best player in the world. And that, I’m hoping, will provide the rivalry we’ve all been waiting for for so long – and perhaps the best golf ever played. I for one think that’s a likely reality, and can’t imagine what would be more fun to watch happen to this sport.
2) Ernie Els - Soon after Tiger Woods said “Hello, world” and announced that he’d be turning pro and signing an endorsement deal with Nike, Ernie Els captured his second US Open championship. He was a known, established commodity in the golf world and as Tiger came up Els was one of the giants of the game he’d have to dethrone. 15 years later Ernie has managed to capture two additional majors, but he’s also racked up 15 additional top 3 finishes in majors. In 2000, Woods' best season as a pro, Els came in second place in the Masters, the US Open and the Open Championship.
Els has also been famously forthcoming about all things Woods, often offering up opinions on Tiger’s game, supremacy compared to other players and even his off-course issues. Els would manage to play at Tiger’s level at times as well, with the 3-hole playoff for the 2003 President’s Cup being perhaps the best display of clutch putting I’ve ever seen. All of that being said, I don’t think that Tiger ever felt much of a threat from Els. My guess would be that Tiger holds a deep respect for all aspects of Els’ game, but has few doubts about his ability to beat him head to head.
3) Vijay Singh – Vijay Singh’s rivalry with Tiger Woods really blossomed in 2003, then matured throughout the 2004 season. In ’04 Singh would win nine tournaments, including the PGA Championship, before overtaking Tiger Woods for no. 1 in the Official World Golf Rankings – a spot Woods had held for 264 consecutive weeks. He was also named the PGA Tour’s Player of the Year. While it’s undeniable that Vijay wasn’t derailed that much by Woods in the majors (despite his 3 major victories he only had five top-3 finishes), his 2004 season was the only instance of true Woods-like dominance in the midst of the Woods era, with the possible exception being Padraig Harrington’s 2008 campaign.
4) Phil Mickelson – In Hank Haney’s book The Big Miss he dishes on Woods’ views of Mickelson stating, “Most of it is that Mickelson possesses the kind of talent that has made him a legitimate threat to Tiger’s supremacy. Phil’s popularity with fans and gentle treatment from the media add to Tiger’s annoyance. For years, Tiger reveled in the idea that Mickelson had trouble playing in his presence.” And while there’s no doubt that to this point Phil Mickelson has been considered Tiger’s biggest rival, the rivalry most certainly has not lived up to the hype.
Truthfully, Phil hasn’t had much more luck than Ernie against Tiger. He’s managed to win four majors, be he also has 18 top-3 finishes. A closer examination of their records suggests that Ernie lost as Tiger’s hands more often than Phil did – in fact Phil has only been runner-up to Tiger in a major once. I think that Tiger’s perspective on Mickelson is more based off his recognition of Phil’s talent than a true respect for him game. He roars at the opportunity to step on this dimwit.
5) Honorable (or pityable?) mention - Chris Dimarco. You’ve got to feel bad for the man. He finished runner-up to Woods in a major twice, as well as once in a World Golf Championship event. And his performances were all pure grit – he absolutely pushed Woods as much as anybody. As of now, he looks set to retire with 3 wins on the PGA tour and certainly no spot in history. Without Woods’ interference, he could be mentioned in the same breath as other players with multiple majors.
Will Rory or Woods spend more of the next 5 years ranked no. 1 in the world? How many majors will Rory end his career with? Will this rivalry even continue to play out? Let’s just say I’m optimistic, and it should be a hell of a lot of fun to watch unfold.