Tiger Woods' Top Rivals Throughout His Career

Ben AlberstadtFeatured ColumnistNovember 27, 2012

Tiger Woods' Top Rivals Throughout His Career

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    Rory McIlroy, who is presently positioned first in the Official World Golf Ranking, has emerged as a rival for Tiger Woods. Indeed, McIlroy has been a superior golfer to Woods over the past few golf seasons, rising consistently in the OWGR and winning two majors..

    Since the early 2000s, when Woods established himself as the world’s most dominant golfer, golf fans and the golfing press have awaited the emergence of a rival for Woods. Finally, in the course of the simultaneous rise of Rory and fall of Tiger, Woods’ first real rival has surfaced.

    However, throughout Tiger’s career, other golfers have challenged Woods. 

Rivals for a Day

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    In the course of Tiger's career, a few golfers have risen up to challenge him during particular tournaments, but haven't been able to mount a sustained assault over the course of a year or years. These golfers have, however, provided some truly memorable theater.

Trip Keuhne

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    At the final of the 1994 U.S. Amateur at TPC Sawgrass, Trip Keuhne was 5-up with 12 holes to play against Tiger Woods, then 18. 

    Tiger won five of the next 10 holes to defeat Kuehne in memorable fashion on the 17th hole, capping one of the most dramatic comebacks in the history of the tournament. 

    Keuhne's crumbling down the stretch and Tiger's ability to do what needed to be done to win were both notable, as was the precedent which was established: In pressure situations, rivals fold and Tiger triumphs.

Jim Furyk

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    Tiger described his 2001 WGC NEC Invitational battle with a determined Jim Furyk as "a lot of fun; win or lose. It was just fun to compete like that where you were tested to the absolute utmost."

    Furyk and Woods battled for seven extra holes in a sudden-death playoff, before Tiger bested Furyk with a birdie for his third straight victory in the tournament.

    Although Jim Furyk never really threatened Tiger during the latter's period of dominance, on that day he was able to go blow for blow with the World Number One. There were times during the playoff when it looked like the golf gods had singled out Furyk for victory, such as his incredible hole-out from the bunker on the first playoff hole to extend the event.

Chris DiMarco

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    With the abbreviated slice swing of a Champions Tour player, Chris DiMarco gave Tiger a run for his money at the 2005 Masters Tournament.

    Although the most memorable feature of the tournament was Tiger's chip on the 16th hole, the real story of the event was the two horse race between Woods and DiMarco. The latter showed real resolve, separating himself from the pack with a final round 68 to tie Woods and force a playoff. 

    As DiMarco said regarding his performance, "I would let it hurt if I gave it away but I didn't." The University of Florida grad went head-to-head with the best golfer in the world on Sunday at Augusta, and held his own, refusing to fold to both Woods and major championship pressure. 

Y.E. Yang

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    It wasn't quite Clay knocking out Liston, but Y.E. Yang did do the unthinkable at the 2009 PGA Championship: He beat Tiger Woods on Sunday at a major when Tiger entered the day with the 54-hole lead.

    Woods came to the last needing birdie to force a playoff with Yang, who inexplicably had maintained his composure up until that point. It was Yang, however, not Tiger who followed a brilliant recovery shot with a birdie putt to seal the victory, echoing Jack Fleck's unlikely triumph over Ben Hogan at the Olympic Club years before.  

Rocco Mediate

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    Whether Tiger vs. his leg, or Rocco vs. Tiger was the standout storyline from the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines is a matter for debate. While the previous may have more of the classic "man vs. himself" drama and, Rocco Mediate, joker and journeyman, really challenged Tiger, both on Sunday and during their Monday playoff.

    Tiger was sloppy on Sunday and was, quite obviously, in a great deal of pain playing golf on a compromised left leg. However, Rocco did manage to equal the hobbling Tiger's even par score in their Monday playoff to force a sudden-death showdown, which he lost on the first extra hole.

    To call Mediate's performance "inspired" doesn't do the man justice. Over two days, he either equalled or bettered Tiger Woods in the concluding rounds of a major. Only though the application of every bit of his legendary iron will was Woods able to win.

Bob May

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    Tiger called his showdown with Bob May at Valhalla in 2000 one of the great duels in major championship history. 

    May, an obscure journeyman who looked like he might have difficulty breaking 80, battled Tiger, who had won the previous two majors and who was in the midst of some of the best golf in tour history.

    The idea that Bob May could shoot 66 on the weekend was beyond ridiculous. Somehow, though, May shot 66, rather than 76, on Sunday at Valhalla and forced Tiger to make a birdie on the final hole to force a playoff. 

    When Tiger followed his putt in on the second playoff hole (in one of the great golf celebrations of all time) May's fate was sealed: He was both the runner up in the 2000 PGA Championship and the greatest individual challenger to Tiger Woods on Sunday at a major which he led after 54 holes.

Rivals for No. 1

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    From "Hello, World" to the present, a few golfers have challenged Tiger Woods over a longer period of time. Prior to 2005, four golfers overtook Tiger in the Official World Golf Rankings, until Lee Westwood took over. Neither Westwood nor his successor, Luke Donald, make this list, as they and Tiger have passed rather like ships in the night.

David Duval

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    The world number one for most of 1998, David Duval was one of Tiger's early rivals, even though Tiger protested to the contrary following their exhibition match at Sherwood Country Club. 

    Between 1997 and 2001, Duval won 13 times. In his ever-present Oakley sunglasses, Duval seemed the only legitimate challenger to Woods in the late 90s. Additionally, his devotion to the technical aspects of his swing suggested that he possessed both the necessary talent and dedication to challenge Woods well into the 2000s. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, this didn't happen.

Ernie Els

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    In 2002, Ernie Els outlasted a Sunday charge from Tiger Woods at the Genuity Championship (Now the Ford Championship at Doral). Prior to his victory, Els had finished second to Woods six times. Els was able to parlay an eight-stroke lead into a victory in a way which he wasn't able to do at the Johnnie Walker Classic four years prior. 

    The victory wasn't a resounding one by any means, but it was the first time Els was successfully able to beat back the advancing Woods and foreshadowed the "Big 5" era on the PGA Tour. 

Vijay Singh

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    During the final round of the 2004 Duetsche Bank Championship, Vijay Singh beat Tiger Woods by three strokes to take over the top spot in the Official World Golf Ranking. The head-to-head thumping of Woods issued in a short spell at the top spot for the Big Fijian. Symbolically, however, Singh's victory proved that he could beat the game's most dominant closer in a significant tournament when the latter had a wealth of extra motivation.

    In 2004, Singh won nine times to Tiger's one victory. He secured the money title and clearly had the upper hand. In the early part of 2005, however, Singh lost the number one ranking to Woods after Tiger bested him at the Ford Championship at Doral. Woods won six times in 2005 and reclaimed the top spot in the OWGR. 

Phil Mickelson

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    The rivalry between Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods has always been somewhat unsatisfying. When Tiger won his first major in 1997, Phil seemed to lack the consistency to both win a major and challenge Tiger with regularity. 

    In the early 2000s, on the most significant Sundays, Mickelson was often a bystander, while Woods raised trophies, such as at the 2001 and 2002 Masters. Phil did, however, eventually assert himself, winning the 2004 Masters, while Tiger finished well back. 

    The most interesting elements of their rivalry have had nothing to do with their competing against one another, such as the "inferior equipment" comments made by Mickelson and the complete absence of camaraderie between the two at the 2004 Ryder Cup at Oakland HIlls.

    At the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am earlier this year, Mickelson outplayed Woods by 11 strokes on Sunday en route to victory. Although the McIlroy vs. Woods narrative is given top billing, episodes like the previous indicate that there may still be great contests between the two, although it's doubtful that Phil will ever challenge Woods or McIlroy for supremacy in the OWGR, money lists, wins, or any significant metrics. 

Rory McIlroy

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    The Duel at Jinsha Lake aside, Tiger and Rory haven't competed head-to-head in a compelling fashion...yet.

    Since McIlroy joined the tour in 2010, Tiger has been rebuilding his life and swing, once falling to 52nd in the Official World Golf Ranking.

    He hasn't won a major in that stretch, and has only won a handful of tournaments, although his three victories in 2012, improvements in a major statistical categories and rise to #2 in the OWGR seem to indicate that in 2013, Tiger may finally be a fitting rival for Rory, who is the vastly superior golfer, at present.

    The tenor of the Woods-McIlroy rivalry is different than the others on this list for a couple reasons.

    First, Tiger is (at the moment, at least) the clearly inferior golfer. Additionally, Tiger actually seems to like Rory, whereas he previously held his rivals (save for perhaps, Ernie Els) in contempt and preferred to be friendly, historically, with subdued and non-threatening individuals such as Steve Stricker and John Cook.

    It will be incredibly interesting to watch the development of this rivalry during the upcoming golf season.