Has a True Rivalry Ever Existed in Professional Golf?
Everyone loves rivalries in sports.
They incite heavy interest and emotion amongst the fans.
They give the media and television networks appealing storylines to pursue from a promotional standpoint.
And whether the rivalries actually exist in the minds of the athletes or it is simply a matter of the participants knowing that a particular game or match is receiving more attention than usual, the on-field competition tends to reach a whole new level when rivals face off against one another.
Rivalries are easy to identify and become emotionally involved in when it comes to team sports.
North Carolina and Duke face off against one another at least twice per year on the hardwood.
The Red Sox and Yankees play numerous games against one another during the course of the season.
Ohio St. vs. Michigan is an event that rivals few others each and every autumn.
But what about golf?
There have obviously been a number of truly great players whose reign at the top happened to coincide with the careers of other great players.
But has a rivalry ever truly existed in professional golf?
The answer to that question may surprise you.
Let’s taking a closer look at what many consider to be the greatest rivalries in the history of golf.
Walter Hagen vs. Bobby Jones
The second half of Walter Hagen’s career certainly overlapped with the prime of Bobby Jones’ career.
While the two battled quite often in exhibition matches, Hagen was a professional while Jones was, of course, an amateur. This meant the two only really crossed paths at the U.S. Open and the Open Championship. The Masters had not yet been created and the PGA Championship was only open to professionals.
Between 1920 (when Jones began competing in U.S. Opens) and 1930 (when Jones retired), Jones and Hagen only attended 13 majors together (11 U.S. Opens and two Open Championships). Of those 13 majors, Jones won five and Hagen didn’t win any.
In addition, of those five majors that Jones won, Hagen cracked the top five just once (a third-place finish at the 1926 Open Championship) and Hagen never finished second to Jones in a single major.
Jones also never finished second to Hagen in a single major. Heck, of the four majors that Hagen won between 1920 and 1930 (all four were Open Championships); Jones didn’t even attend any of those events.
Rivalry or not?
This may quite possibly be the most nonexistent rivalry ever concocted in professional golf.
Jones never took majors away from Hagen because of those majors Jones won while Hagen was in the field, Hagen never finished better than third place.
Hagen never took majors away from Jones because Jones didn’t even attend the four majors that Hagen won during the period of time that their careers overlapped.
At least on the major championship stage, this was far from a true rivalry.
Ben Hogan vs. Byron Nelson
Although Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson had often battled on the golf course while growing up in the same caddie yard at Glen Garden Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas, Nelson won the majority of his professional tournaments, and all of his majors, before Hogan really began to take off in 1946.
Only 33 percent of Hogan’s careers wins occurred prior to 1946, while 87 percent of Nelson’s wins came prior to that time.
Although Hogan did win five times during Nelson’s incredible 1945 season when Nelson won 18 tournaments, including 11 in a row, Hogan was still serving in the military at that time and did not play a full schedule, nor was he able to practice quite as much as he was accustomed to.
The 1942 Masters was the only time that Hogan and Nelson really faced off against one another at a major. The two tied for the 72-hole lead and Nelson wound up defeating Hogan during an 18-hole Monday playoff.
Of Nelson’s five major championship wins, the 1942 Masters was the only time Hogan finished second. Nelson never finished second to Hogan at a major as eight of Hogan’s nine major wins occurred after Nelson had already retired from professional golf.
Rivalry or not?
In terms of true head-to-head competition at the professional level, Hogan and Nelson really only faced off against one another for a period of three years between 1940 and 1942.
Hogan lost 1943 and 1944 to the war and did not play a full schedule during the 1945 season. Nelson then retired after the 1946 season and Hogan went on to win another eight major championships and 23 PGA Tour titles.
One could argue that this rivalry was far more intense during the two golfers' younger years at Glen Garden Country Club than it would ever become on the professional level.
Ben Hogan vs. Sam Snead
The careers of Ben Hogan and Sam Snead overlapped more than the careers of Hogan and Nelson. Between 1945 and 1953 (Hogan’s prime), Hogan won 47 events, including all nine of his major championship titles, while Snead won 32 times including five majors.
Hogan and Snead combined to win nearly 40 percent of all majors played between 1945 and 1953.
However, Snead finished second to Hogan only once at a major, which came at the 1953 U.S. Open. This was actually the only time Snead even finished within the top five at a major won by Hogan, and Snead finished a full six strokes behind Hogan at the 1953 U.S. Open—it was certainly not what anyone would describe as a duel between the two golfers.
And on the flip side, Hogan also finished second to Snead at a major just once during his career, which came at the 1954 Masters. This would be considered on the only real major championship duel between the two men. Hogan and Snead tied for the 72-hole lead and Snead edged Hogan out by just one stroke during the Monday playoff.
Rivalry or not?
Hogan and Snead were far and away the two top players in the game during the late 1940s and early 1950s, but does it really constitute a rivalry when the two men only butted heads at golf's biggest events once during their entire careers?
These were simply two outstanding players whose careers happened to overlap.
Arnold Palmer vs. Jack Nicklaus
Arnold Palmer was 10 years older than Jack Nicklaus and had already been on tour for eight years when Nicklaus arrived on the scene in 1962.
Palmer went head-to-head with Nicklaus at the 1962 U.S. Open and lost out to him during a Monday playoff.
Palmer would go on to win just two more majors between 1962 and 1964 while Nicklaus would win an additional 17 career majors following that 1962 U.S. Open win.
Between 1962 and 1970, Palmer won 23 PGA Tour events (including two majors) while Nicklaus won 32 times, including more than three times as many majors as Palmer following their 1962 dual at Oakmont.
Palmer was just about done by 1968; a mere six years after Nicklaus arrived on the scene.
Nicklaus finished second to Palmer just twice at a major (and only once as a professional—the 1964 Masters where he tied for second with Dave Marr).
Of Nicklaus’ 18 major wins, Palmer finished second just three times; and only twice after their initial dual at the 1962 U.S. Open when this so-called rivalry began.
In total, Nicklaus won more than double the number of majors as Palmer.
Rivalry or not?
This could possibly be considered a rivalry for a few years between 1962 and 1968. But it was a rivalry that was extremely short and very lopsided, yet it is still somehow promoted as golf’s greatest rivalry more than 50 years after the two men faced off for the first time as professionals back in 1962 at Oakmont.
One could possibly make the argument that Palmer and Nicklaus were involved in a more heated rivalry after the two retired and began competing head-to-head for numerous golf course design projects around the world.
The two greats of the game competed head-to-head on this front far more often than they ever faced off against one another at major championships.
Jack Nicklaus vs. Lee Trevino
Lee Trevino arrived on the scene right around the time Palmer was on the decline and presented Nicklaus with what may have been one of the few legitimate head-to-head rivalries in the game of golf.
Between 1968 and 1980, Trevino won 27 PGA Tour events, including five majors, while Nicklaus won 45 times, including 10 majors.
However, of the five majors Trevino won between 1968 and 1980, Nicklaus finished within the top five at all five of them, including four second-place finishes.
The two also went head-to-head in a playoff at the 1971 U.S. Open at Merion where Trevino famously tossed a rubber snake Nicklaus’ way on the first tee. Trevino would go on to win that 18-hole playoff by three strokes over Nicklaus.
Of Nicklaus' 10 major titles between 1968 and 1980, Trevino finished within the top 10 four times, including two top five finishes.
This works out to six majors won by either Trevino or Nicklaus where the other finished within the top five, and nine majors won by Trevino or Nicklaus where the other finished within the top 10.
Rivalry or not?
While this rivalry may not receive as much attention as Nicklaus vs. Palmer, Nicklaus and Trevino faced off against one another at the majors far more often than any of Nicklaus’ other challengers.
While the media of that era may have promoted the Nicklaus vs. Palmer rivalry due to their infatuation with Palmer during the start of golf’s television age, there is no question that, in terms of actual substance, the Nicklaus vs. Trevino rivalry was much more intense.
Jack Nicklaus vs. Tom Watson
Tom Watson arrived on the scene in 1975 and won seven majors between 1975 and 1982.
Of those seven majors, Nicklaus finished within the top 10 all seven times including three second-place finishes and three other top-five finishes.
Nicklaus was getting up there in age by the early 1980s. But in just a seven-year stretch between 1975 and 1982, Watson won seven majors and Nicklaus only won five, and one could certainly argue that Watson took away at least three majors from Nicklaus during that short seven-year time frame.
Rivalry or not?
Although fairly short-lived, this was indeed an intense rivalry between 1975 and 1982.
If anything, Nicklaus had far greater rivals in Trevino and Watson than he ever had in Palmer. Nicklaus finished second to Palmer at a major just once after turning professional in 1962, whereas Nicklaus finished second to Trevino and Watson a combined seven times at major championships.
Of Watson and Trevino’s combined 12 major championship wins between 1968 and 1982, Nicklaus finished in the top five 67 percent of the time and finished second more than 50 percent of the time.
Palmer was such a favorite of the fans and media during the 1960s and early 1970s that it is almost as if a rivalry was manufactured to prop Palmer up a bit when, in reality, he was getting completely dominated by Nicklaus for most of that time period.
Nicklaus began to become popular amongst the fans and the media in the 1970s, which is quite possibly why his far-more intense rivalries with players such as Watson and Trevino were downplayed slightly when compared to his very lopsided rivalry with Palmer a decade earlier.
Tiger Woods vs. Phil Mickelson
Woods managed to win more PGA Tour events during the first nine years of his career than Mickelson has won in 23 years out on tour.
Woods has been the No. 1-ranked player in the world for 683 total weeks while Lefty has never reached No. 1 in the World Golf Rankings.
Throughout Woods’ 14 major championship wins, Mickelson has finished second just once (at the 2002 US Open at Bethpage) and has finished within the top five just three times. Woods has never finished second to Mickelson at a major championship.
Woods has won 18 world golf championships, Mickelson has won just two.
During Woods’ true prime years, he won 71 PGA tour events vs. 32 for Mickelson. That is more than double the number events Mickelson won during that time period.
Prior to Woods’ decline, Woods had completely dominated the few head-to-head matchups he had with Mickelson.
Between 1996 and 2007, Woods was 10-4-2 when paired with Mickelson. However, during Woods' decline years between 2009 and 2013, Mickelson had a 7-5-1 record against Woods, including a final-round romp at the 2012 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am when Lefty closed with 64 to win the event and lap Woods by 11 strokes.
But since 1996, Mickelson and Woods have been paired together an average of just twice per year and have never really gone head-to-head at the only four tournaments that truly matter in golf, the majors.
Rivalry or not?
This was no rivalry.
Mickelson simply happened to be the next best player during the Woods era so fans and the media attempted to create a rivalry that never really existed.
A record of success that is so incredibly lopsided cannot possibly constitute a rivalry, especially when the two have never really faced off against one another at a major.
Rory McIlroy vs. Jordan Spieth vs. Rickie Fowler
And then we come to our current crop of “young guns” on the PGA Tour.
Prior to the 2015 season, Rory McIlroy had obviously dominated this latest crop of young touring pros, so, of course, we are hungry for some kind of rivalry to form, whether that's a media manufactured rivalry or one that truly exists.
Last year it was Rickie Fowler who was going to challenge McIlroy after finishing within the top five at all four majors.
Earlier this year it was Jordan Spieth who was going to challenge McIlroy after his win at the Masters.
Fowler then came back and won the Players Championship followed by a second consecutive major championship win by Spieth at the U.S. Open, so, of course, the discussion about golf’s new “Big Three” has officially begun.
But let’s once again go back to the facts.
McIlroy has 17 worldwide wins at the age of 26, including four majors, two WGCs and 10 PGA Tour wins.
Spieth is five years younger than McIlroy, but to date he has six professional wins and two majors. McIlroy has never finished second in a major to Spieth and Spieth has never finished second in a major to McIlroy.
Fowler has just three professional wins and no majors. McIlroy has obviously never finished second to Fowler at a major and Fowler has finished second to McIlroy at a major just once where he tied for second at the 2014 Open Championship.
Rivalry or not?
Of course, all three players are still very young, but the likelihood of some kind of intense battle forming between these three players over the next decade is incredibly slim based on the history of rivalries in professional golf, at least in terms of top players going head-to-head at the majors.
Aside from Nicklaus and Trevino for a short period of time and then Nicklaus and Watson for a short period of time, golf has never really had a true rivalry. And it is unlikely that one is now forming between the likes of McIlroy, Spieth, Fowler or any of the other current crop of “young guns” in the game of golf.
Despite our best efforts to bring aspects of other sports such as playoffs, rivalries, etc. to professional golf, golf is and always has been very different to most other mainstream sports.
Each tournament typically contains a field of 150 of the best golfers on the planet. This makes head-to-head duels incredibly rare in professional golf, which, of course, makes it quite difficult for true rivalries to exist in the sport.
Perhaps the only true rivalry in professional golf these days is in the exhibition match known as the Ryder Cup.