Ranking the 10 Best Rivalries in Golf History

Mike DudurichContributor IDecember 4, 2014

Ranking the 10 Best Rivalries in Golf History

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    Jack Nicklaus applauds a shot by Tom Watson.
    Jack Nicklaus applauds a shot by Tom Watson.TED S. WARREN/Associated Press

    The idea of ranking the 10 best rivalries in golf seemed like a fairly easy one.

    But once the research began and the numbers started to be crunched, it became obvious that a list of 10 wasn't going to be as easy as I thought.

    There have been a lot of really good rivalries throughout the history of this game.

    Therefore, it became a bit more of a subjective matter. 

    As it turned out, I used numbers, written words I have read and also what I remember.

    There may be others you think could have made this list, too.

    Check it out and see what you think.

10. Tiger Woods vs. Phil Mickelson

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    It's always been Tiger Woods out front, Phil Mickelson behind.
    It's always been Tiger Woods out front, Phil Mickelson behind.Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    This is not really a rivalry in the truest sense of the word for one simple reason.

    Phil Mickelson hasn't beaten Tiger Woods enough.

    It's been more of a rivalry that golf fans and the media wanted to create.

    Mickelson is a World Golf Hall of Famer and will be remembered as one of the game's greats. He unfortunately played in an era that was completely dominated by Woods.

    This era's dynamic duo have had a frosty relationship over the years. That would be part of most real rivalries. This one, however, is a rivalry because Mickelson and Woods are the most popular players of their era.

    If Woods has anything left and is able to challenge Rory McIlroy, that could develop into a real rivalry.

9. Gene Sarazen vs. Walter Hagen

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    Two of golf's legendary greats, Gene Sarazen and Walter Hagen.
    Two of golf's legendary greats, Gene Sarazen and Walter Hagen.Associated Press

    When you look down through this list, there are only a few that contained any real acrimony.

    The one between Gene Sarazen and Walter Hagen was one of those.

    They were great players, great champions and great major champions.

    Their rivalry reached its peak in 1922. Hagen, the most stylish dresser in golf in that era, did not play in the PGA Championship, a decision that was unusual for a guy who had just won the British Open earlier that year.

    There were whispers that he did so to avoid having to deal with the diminutive Sarazen.

    And when the two met in a challenge match of that year, Hagen aggravated the situation by repeatedly calling 20-year-old Sarazen, "kid."

    In an article on Back 9 Network, Sarazen was quoted as saying, "I didn’t like the way he kept calling me ‘kid.’ I was a champion and I wanted Hagen to respect me as a champion.”

    Sarazen won that day, 3 and 2.

    In their careers, Hagen won 11 majors to Sarazen's seven.

8. Walter Hagen vs. Bobby Jones

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    Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen, center, were two of golf's greats in the early 1900s.
    Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen, center, were two of golf's greats in the early 1900s.Associated Press

    There wasn't much doubt who the best players in the world were in the early 1900s. One was an amateur, Bobby Jones. The other was a pro, Walter Hagen. 

    They battled many times in major championships with Jones winning 13 and Hagen 11 between 1914 and 1930.

    Between 1924 and 1930, the two combined two win five of six British Opens, as told on blog Me and Old Man Par. The one they didn't win? They didn't enter.

    The two often played in exhibition matches and played in a "world championship" 72-hole exhibition match in 1926. It turned out to be a one-sided match, with Hagen humbling Jones, 12 and 11, a whipping that convinced Jones to remain an amateur.

7. Nick Faldo vs. Greg Norman

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    Nick Faldo and Greg Norman had some great battles.
    Nick Faldo and Greg Norman had some great battles.Michael Cohen/Getty Images

    Golf needed a rivalry to fill in the time between when Jack Nicklaus was at his best and Tiger Woods burst onto the scene. Nick Faldo and Greg Norman provided just that.

    Norman had a very good PGA Tour career, but also had one of golf's most tragic careers. Take 1986 for example. He led all four majors after three rounds, but only won once.

    The guy who turned out to be his rival was Englishman Nick Faldo. During middle of the 1980s and into the 1990s, Faldo won six majors: three Masters and three British Opens. Faldo beat Norman handily in the 1990 British Open and was the beneficiary of the Great White Shark's collapse in 1996 at the Masters.

    Both were elite players, Norman spent 331 weeks in the top spot of the World Golf Rankings, Faldo 97.

6. Sam Snead vs. Ben Hogan

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    Sam Snead, Ben Hogan walk the fairways at Augusta National Club.
    Sam Snead, Ben Hogan walk the fairways at Augusta National Club.Associated Press

    They would become two of the legendary names in golf: Sam Snead and Ben Hogan.

    Slamming Sammy and the Hawk.

    These two giants of the game couldn't have been more different. Snead was tall, easy going and had a deep West Virginia drawl. Hogan was shorter and seemed to be in a constant state of uptight.

    Snead came to the game first in 1936 and two years later, Hogan turned professional and won twice. 

    That became a fierce rivalry over the next 20 years. 

    Snead won 81 tournaments to Hogan's 61. He won nine majors to Hogans seven. Hogan is generally held in higher regard, however, because he won the U.S. Open four times. That was a tournament Snead could never win.

5. Jack Nicklaus vs. Lee Trevino

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    Lee Trevino spent a lot of time chasing Jack Nicklaus.
    Lee Trevino spent a lot of time chasing Jack Nicklaus.Andrew Redington/Getty Images

    Jack Nicklaus won 18 major championships. Lee Trevino won six.

    Nicklaus will most likely go down in history as the greatest player ever, and if it hadn't been for the efforts of Trevino, Nicklaus may have that title wrapped up already.

    Nicklaus finished second to Trevino four times in majors including at Merion, Muirfield and Oak Hill.

    Trevino's most famous win over the Golden Bear came in 1971 at Merion where, before the two teed off in a Monday playoff, Trevino threw a rubber snake at the feet of Nicklaus.

    Two great champions who had some great duels.

4. Byron Nelson vs. Ben Hogan

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    Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson waged some classic battles.
    Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson waged some classic battles.Associated Press
    From the humble beginnings of a caddie tournament in Fort Worth, the rivalry between Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson lasted into the 1950s.
    The numbers tell you Hogan, one of the greatest players in the game, won 64 tournaments, including nine majors. Nelson was certainly no piker, winning 52 times, including five major titles.
    One thing Nelson had that Hogan did not was a spectacular streak of 11 straight victories in 1945 and a total of 18 wins that year. Nelson averaged 68.33 strokes per round and 67.45 in final rounds. The original Gentle Ben went on to win seven more the next year.
    Hogan, of course, came back from a near-fatal auto accident to be a very productive player later in his career.

3. Paul Azinger vs. Seve Ballesteros

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    Paul Azinger and Seve Ballesteros had a fiery rivalry.
    Paul Azinger and Seve Ballesteros had a fiery rivalry.Stephen Munday/Getty Images

    Now this was a real-live, fire-breathing rivalry between a pair of golfers with those kinds of personalities.

    Paul Azinger and the late Seve Ballesteros didn't have a rivalry that spilled over into regular PGA Tour events. This was one contained within the Ryder Cup.

    It all started in the 1989 edition of the event between the U.S. and Europe. Azinger stirred things when he denied an attempt by Ballesteros to change a scuffed ball. The fiesty Spaniard later challenged a drop by Azinger. 

    At the Ryder Cup in 1991, Ballesteros said, per Golf.com, "The American team has 11 nice guys. And Paul Azinger.”

    Say what you will about their rivalry, their spat was one of the forces that took the gentlemanly Ryder Cup and boosted it into the high-intensity affair it is today.

2. Arnold Palmer vs. Jack Nicklaus

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    Two of the all-time greats: Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.
    Two of the all-time greats: Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    What a unique pair these two were. 

    Jack Nicklaus was a country club kid growing up; Arnold Palmer worked at the club his father own and ran, Latrobe Country Club.

    When Palmer turned professional, he was instantly a heartthrob and golf fans everywhere loved him. Nicklaus showed up as the chubby kid with a crew cut.

    Here's a stat that will tell you what their rivalry meant to golf: Either Nicklaus or Palmer had a top-three finish in at least one major per year from 1958 through 1980 (except for 1969). 

    How did that break down? Nicklaus had 59 top-threes, Palmer 36.

    The bottom line on this rivalry that turned into a close friendship in their later years? Nicklaus won more tournaments, but was never able to win the number of hearts Palmer did.

1. Tom Watson vs. Jack Nicklaus

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    Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson kept winning and winning.
    Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson kept winning and winning.Agustin Tabares/Associated Press

    Unlike the rivalry of Gene Sarazen and Ben Hogan, the highly spirited duels between Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson were filled with great golf and mutual respect.

    Do you remember the 1977 "Duel in the Sun," in which Watson knocked off Nicklaus at Turnberry to win the British Open?

    How about the 1982 battle at Pebble Beach, when Watson chipped in from behind the green at the 17th hole at Pebble to beat Nicklaus again?

    Between Watson and Lee Trevino, Nicklaus missed out on seven more titles. How much more impressive would 25 have been than 18?

    A Nicklaus quote found in a Golf Digest piece summed up the rivalry, "That S.O.B. did it to me again."