Rivalry isn’t just about competing for the same objective—be it the Stanley Cup, the World Series or the Wimbledon trophy. It’s about lasting, definitive greatness between two tireless foes.
Every rivalry is distinct in its own way. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson’s basketball feud can’t compare to Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi’s tennis bouts.
The Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees’ historical baseball battle cannot equate to the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins hockey brawl for glory.
In golf, rivalries have fueled some of the most epic championships in history and to this day continue to sizzle among the world’s most voracious competitors. But unlike most other sports, where the adage “we win as a team, we lose as team” has the power to inspire and unify teammates in triumph and defeat, things are more black and white in golf.
One winner and one loser emerge with definite shots and moments that illuminate where one player failed and where the other soared.
What lies ahead are the 10 greatest rivalries in golf, from the timeless quandary of Jack Nicklaus versus Arnold Palmer to the lively debate over Happy Gilmore against Shooter McGavin.
Although both golfers have left their own indelible impacts upon the sport, their rivalry persists as a timeless tale of a King and a Golden Bear.
Just like Babe Ruth and Ted Williams were baseball, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer were golf, and their impact remains powerful even today.
The two seminal figures elevated the level of the game, sparked a flare for golf among the public and broke records. But most importantly, they went head-to-head in countless bouts of clutch shots, brute swings and silky smooth putts.
The differences in their individual games were as obvious as oil and water.
Palmer crushed a curling draw and Nicklaus wrenched an arching fade. Palmer epitomized the aggressive, go-for-broke strategy while Nicklaus drew up the conservative plan without a blemish. Palmer went on to seven professional major championships paired with 62 PGA Tour titles, and Nicklaus etched into the record books 18 majors and 73 victories.
Between 1958 and 1980, one of the two captured a top-three finish in at least one major every year except 1969.
"He doesn’t play golf…he destroys it," reads the tagline for the classic golf movie Happy Gilmore, in which a former hockey player, Happy Gilmore (Adam Sandler), coincidentally learns that he’s been touched by the golf gods with the gift of the long ball—pummeling the ball over 400 yards without fail.
In an effort to save his grandma’s house from being claimed by the IRS, he turns pro—naturally—picking up the essentials through trial, error and incessant amounts of profanity.
The only person standing in the way of his success is the established, arrogant and stereotypical golf professional, Shooter McGavin. Jealous of the attention Gilmore has garnered, McGavin and Gilmore trade witty and often ridiculous, snide remarks throughout the movie until they face off at the defining tournament of the season—the Tour Championship.
McGavin attempts to sabotage Gilmore’s power when he hires someone to hit him on the golf course with a Volkswagen Beetle. As Gilmore’s game begins to suffer, he ironically finds his "happy place," which helps him rally alongside friends and family in a miraculous victory.
Similar to Nicklaus and Palmer, the rivalry between Sam Snead and Ben Hogan transcended the golf course into the realm of who was the bigger cultural icon.
Throughout the 1940s and 50s, these men succeeded in what golfers in the past had only attempted—they became celebrities. Each participated in ticker-tape parades, made guest appearances on TV shows like The Phil Rivers Show, and ultimately laid the foundation for golf as an industry and institution that it is today.
But when on the course, they were all business and they have the track record to prove it.
Hogan, often referred to as the greatest ball striker to ever play the game, ranks fourth all-time for wins on the PGA Tour with 64. However, Snead holds the record over Hogan, Woods and even Nicklaus with a mind-boggling 82 PGA Tour victories.
Considering the two were born within six months of each other in 1912, whenever it seemed like one had reached the peak of his game, the other’s dogged work ethic outshined him. The 1950 season is one of the most stunning examples, in which Snead won 11 events on Tour, yet Hogan earned the Player of the Year honor for his win at the US Open just a year after a near-fatal accident.
Just the thought of Tiger and Phil instantly, and inevitably, presents an aura of tension.
Their relationship seems defined by a constant battle to reach the pinnacle of their sport, whether it was the No.1 World Ranking, to win the Masters (like in 2010) or for Player of the Year honors.
Clearly, Woods' entrance into the golf world was like a tidal wave, powerfully sweeping through anyone attempting to contend with what we'd learn was an unrivaled aptitude for the sport. Unfortunately for Mickelson, anytime Woods struggled or was working on swing changes, Lefty was instantly elevated to the "best in the game," as if some kind of consolation until Woods returned.
But the fact is, there was always that inescapable belief that Woods would return and would overpower Mickelson.
If you dissect their games, they’re actually unbelievably similar. Neither boasts their accuracy off the tee, but have immense length. Both are terrific at shaping iron shots. Both play the risk-reward style of golf, preferring the aggressive shot to the conservative one. Both have been unmatched in their short game prowess, except by one another.
However, one of the qualities that Mickelson is undoubtedly jealous of is Woods’ uncanny ability to finish. Mickelson has an extremely hapless history of losing his lead, or striking opportunity, down the stretch (reference Winged Food 2005), whereas Woods basically redefined how to close, hitting the shot or putt under pressure.
Golf carts are usually ammunition for the argument that "golf is not a real sport." Similarly, caddies add an element of simplicity to the actual golfer’s experience.
But for the dedicated golfer, what’s the verdict?
Walking the course is crucial to facilitating a sense of rhythm. You get a feel, literally, for the course. While there’s no rush like in football or basketball, walking the course generates a distinct form of adrenaline because not only is the body at work, but so is the mind—strategizing and visualizing the shortest and most efficient route to the inside of that cup.
The cart is a luxury, plain and simple. On a scorching, humid day, the breeze is rejuvenating, but other than the effortlessness it provides, it is 100-percent convenience.
According to golf experts and historians, if the two met in their prime, Nicklaus would outduel Woods in almost every aspect of the game, except for one crucial stop—the short game.
At the peak of Tiger’s game, there wasn’t a chip or putt he approached that didn’t seem to have the potential of going in. In fact, most of the time—and usually with the victory on the line—they did go in. What lies at the foundation of this rivalry between arguably the two greatest golfers of all-time is one record—the major championships.
The Golden Bear finished his career with 18 majors to his name, a feat that at the time appeared unbeatable. Then a hot-shot kid out of Stanford started not just making noise, but defying any-and-every expectation, tournament after tournament after major after major.
Woods, currently 35 years old, sits in second place for the major championship record with 14, the last coming at the 2008 US Open in astonishing fashion. However, his turbulent end to 2009 led to the unforeseen, nearly unthinkable, winless 2010 season. Whether or not Woods can keep pace with Jack’s record is a question of where your allegiance lies.
But one thing is for sure: Any encounter these two men have is distressed by a single thought in the back of both of their minds—will Tiger break the record?
Did you know that for nearly eight years, either Greg Norman or Nick Faldo was the No. 1-ranked player in the world?
Between the 1980s and 90s, Norman held the top spot two-thirds of the time, while Faldo held onto it for a solid 98 weeks. Their rivalry was a consistent pleasure to golf fans who watched both competitors' insatiable appetites for winning fuel them towards golf greatness.
Norman came out on top with 20 PGA Tour victories over Faldo’s nine, but the Englishmen was far and away the dominant force in the majors. Faldo captured three British Opens and three Masters, while Norman won just two majors, but disappointingly earned seven second-place finishes in major championships in his career.
The most memorable, and downright hard to watch, battle between the two golfers came at Augusta National in 1996. Norman owned a substantial, six-shot lead over Faldo Sunday morning, but by the afternoon the Aussie had plummeted. Faldo shot an impeccable 67 on Sunday at the Masters and earned what would be his final major championship while Norman fell to second place.
These are the two men behind the man who dominated the golf world for nearly a decade.
Originally, the Butch Harmon-Tiger Woods tandem seemed flawless. The duo worked tirelessly together from 1993 to 2004, a span of time in which Woods won three US Amateur titles, eight major championships and over 30 PGA Tour events. However, towards the end of 2004, it appeared Woods was losing his edge, causing the pair to split.
Soon after, Woods hooked up with renowned instructor Hank Haney, who would spark Tiger’s resurgence with 31 PGA Tour wins and six majors over the next four seasons. Once Woods found his way back to the top under Haney’s instruction, the rivalry was initiated over which man had a more substantial impact in Woods' overwhelming, record-breaking success.
Beyond the scope of Woods, Harmon has kept his business on the golf course, working with a bevy of talented professional golfers in his career—from Greg Norman and Fred Couples to Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson. Haney has boldly stepped into the media spotlight as the face of The Haney Project, instructing cultural icons like Charles Barkley, Ray Romano and Rush Limbaugh.
Between eight Player of the Year awards, 10 major championships and 72 LPGA victories (third all-time), Annika Sorenstam held a commanding presence over the LPGA Tour that hardly anyone could challenge.
Except for Karrie Webb that is.
Webb won 37 times on the LPGA Tour and earned seven major championships, six of which came between 1999 and 2002.
Both made surges on the LPGA around the same time in their careers and became the first to accomplish a variety of astonishing feats in the women’s world of golf. Webb was the youngest woman to win the career grand slam while Sorenstam was the first to shoot golf’s magic number 59, and earn $2 million in a single season.
Their rivalry came to its climax in 2002, when the two finished either first or second in 10 events, splitting five wins a piece.
The incident at the Booze Allen Classic in 2005 will forever be a blemish across Rory Sabbatini’s scorecard.
Towards the end of the round on Sunday, Sabbatini, in his typical, disgruntled mood, made his frustration with his partner’s (Ben Crane) slow, methodical play harshly visible when he ignored the etiquette of allowing him to play first.
While Sabbatini’s chances of winning had been lost holes ago, Crane still had a legitimate chance, warranting his unhurried tempo on the course. However, Sabbatini believed Crane had no right. He openly criticized Crane for his slow play, refused to wait for him to finish and instead played his own ball without care for Crane. This was the topping on the cake for Sabbatini's broken, cry-baby image and effectively initiated a brutal rivalry between the two players.