Tiger-Phil or Tiger-Rory: Which Is the Best Rivalry in Pro Golf?

Steve SilvermanFeatured ColumnistNovember 28, 2012

ZHENGZHOU, CHINA - OCTOBER 29:  Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland(L) and Tiger Woods of USA walk together during the Duel of Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy at Jinsha Lake Golf Club on October 29, 2012 in Zhengzhou, China.  (Photo by Hong Wu/Getty Images)
Hong Wu/Getty Images

Tiger Woods has been the dominant name in golf since he began his professional career in 1996.

For many years, he has been the king of the hill, and he has brushed nearly all challengers away.

However, he has had a rivalry with Phil Mickelson throughout his career. It is one that has been one-sided in Tiger's favor. Mickelson, 42, has had his moments when he has won his majors, but as Woods, 35 has piled up 14 major championships, Mickelson has won four.

That's a solid number—especially his three Masters titles—but Woods has him outstripped.

Throughout his career, Mickelson has won 40 championships. Woods has 74 titles.

Remember, Mickelson started his career four years before Woods.

Even Mickelson knows that Woods has gotten the best of him over the length of their careers. Mickelson has certainly had heroic victories and had to deal with his own injuries and his wife's illness, but he has never had the public support that Woods has enjoyed.

Rory McIlroy is another story. There have been many young golfers who have come along since Woods made his professional debut in 1996, and he has been able to fend them off through the years and maintain his position of dominance on the pro tour.

Sergio Garcia, Zach Johnson, Chris DiMarco and Ernie Els are among the golfers who have made runs at Woods, and he has pushed them all aside.

That's not about to happen with McIlroy, 23. He has earned the No. 1 position in the world and he has won two major titles the last two years.

McIlroy has a world-class game and he has the swagger to go along with it. When McIlroy walks up the 18th fairway with the lead, he looks like a champion who is about to inherit the golf world. He's not some young hotshot who is trying to steal the crown. Instead, he is going after it John Houseman-style; he's trying to earn it.

He has set the highest standard on the tour in the last two years.

He needs only one thing to gain exalted status: A first-class rivalry with Woods.

McIlroy has done his part. It's now up to Woods to get back to his level so the rivalry can breathe.

Woods is very close. He finished second to McIlroy on the PGA earnings list in 2012 and he won three tournaments.

However, none of them were majors. Woods has not picked up a major title since 2008.

Once Woods and McIlroy can both play their best golf in the final two rounds of a major tournament together, the rivalry will be on in full force.

McIlroy will be a much more worthy opponent than Mickelson. The Woods-Mickelson rivalry was one-sided. McIlroy has the game and confidence to not only hang in with Woods, but possibly get the best of him.

Woods-McIlroy may not be as powerful as the Jack Nicklaus-Arnold Palmer of the 1960s, but it could still be special.

The Woods-McIlroy rivalry seems quite likely to take hold in 2013.