The two best players in the game, but are they rivals?
There was a great deal of sentiment over the last decade or so that wanted The Players Championship to be designated as golf’s fifth major.
You may have noticed that all of that rhetoric has died down because it came as quite a shock to those pushing for such a designation that golf tournaments are not arbitrarily anointed as majors.
Such a title is earned as years go by, great competition is held with the greatest players in the world and the event’s status rises accordingly.
The same logic and facts can be applied to the latest thing being pursued by golf fans: A serious rivalry between Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy.
Let’s start this discussion by saying that just because McIlroy is ranked No. 1 in the world and Woods No. 2 does not necessarily mean that a rivalry automatically exists. It took Ben Hogan and Sam Snead, Gene Sarazen and Walter Hagen, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, Greg Norman and Paul Azinger more than just one joyous year when the upstart rose to the top of the game, nudging the established veteran to the side on the way.
As much as this rivalry is universally anticipated to the point of being expected, there are no guarantees here. What do these names have in common? David Duval, Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson, Lee Westwood, Luke Donald, Ian Poulter.
All have been touted, some more seriously than others, as Tiger Woods’ next rival. Singh and Mickelson racked up a bunch of wins, but could never challenge Woods seriously enough times in the majors to ever be considered a real threat.
That’s why, while I’m hopeful, I’m not ready to go all in on the prospect of McIlroy-Woods becoming the next Nicklaus-Palmer. For starters, they’ve not met head-to-head on Sunday with a major title on the line. That’s certainly not the lone criteria for a rivalry but those of us who can remember Nicklaus-Palmer in the U.S. Open at Oakmont in 1962 or Nicklaus-Watson at Turnberry in 1977 know that’s a key component to it.
And they’re going to have to do that head-to-head thing on multiple occasions. Greg Norman had a classic final round battle in the 1984 U.S. Open against Fuzzy Zoeller. But that didn’t make a rivalry. Nicklaus went head-to-head with Palmer five times, winning three of them. That’s a rivalry.
How about a practical look at the possibility? McIlroy won’t be 24 until May 24, Woods is 37. Since caution and a little time are going to be necessary to form this rivalry, let’s just say five years don the road, McIlroy will be 29 and Woods 42. Can we assume Woods, at that age, will be able to play at the level he did in 2012?
And if he can’t, but has been able to battle McIlroy for a time between now and then, does that make this the rivalry everyone so fiercely hopes for? I don’t think so.
Even Woods cautioned against making something out of this yet. He addressed the subject on his website, tigerwoods.com, recently.
“Whether we develop a rivalry remains to be seen. Let's just let it play out and see where it takes us,” he said. “We'll look at the results the next five or 10 years and see if it becomes a rivalry or not. We'll have to win big events and play each other down the stretch. That hasn't happened yet. We've only played each other at Honda down the stretch. We need a lot more of those type of battles, but in bigger events.”
Take it from a guy who knows a little bit about rivalries and what kind of impact they have on players. Nicklaus spoke about Woods, McIlroy and rivalries in a story in the United Kingdom’s Daily Mail. He said when a young Tom Watson emerged back in Nicklaus’ heyday, it was good for him.
“I think the force that was pushing Tiger for so long was my major record but that might get stale during a period of time,' said Nicklaus. “Now Rory has come along and it will definitely be helpful for Tiger. He probably needs somebody to pop him a few times so he gets a chance to go pop him back. It's kind of good for you to get drummed a couple of times and then all of a sudden he says: ‘I'm not getting drummed anymore. I'm going to drum that guy back.’ That's what rivalries are all about. The competition is fierce, and that's good.”
There are things pointing to Tiger vs. Rory being one of the best rivalries ever in golf. But there are also some big ‘what ifs?’ Like, what happens if the big year Tiger had in 2012 isn’t duplicated because of another injury? What happens if Rory continues his ascent and leaves Tiger in his dust? It’s not out of the realm of possibility that McIlroy could flame out quickly and could be added to that list of might-have-beens.
Put me down as hopeful, but not all that confident we’re watching the beginning of something special.