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  • Writer's pictureRichard Mandell

You Can’t Force A Rivalry

I won’t deny that I am an unabashed Tiger Woods fan. He is my generation’s Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and Ben Hogan. Although my generation may be the last in a line of generations that truly appreciates history – and golf is steeped in it more than all sports except possibly baseball – Tiger is making history. Years from now another may take his place and as Tiger takes his final walk down the eighteenth fairway at Pebble Beach after winning his fourth U. S. Open there alone, I will turn to my kids and say, “(Insert name here) will never be as classy as Tiger!”

I can’t defend his colorful language, but I can say that the cameras were never on Nicklaus or Palmer nearly as much as Tiger encounters them. When was the last time he wasn’t being filmed on the golf course? The semi-finals of his second U. S. Junior win? Do you really think Sarazen and Hogan never tossed a club or said something out of line? We know Bobby Jones certainly had a few words to say. Despite his shortcomings – and we all have them – Tiger respects the traditions of the game and represents the game well. I’m proud to say I am a fan.

One of those traditions that make golf so historically-driven is the tradition of rivalry. The rivalries go back to the origins of the game – the Parks and Dunns; Vardon and Ray; Hogan, Snead, and Nelson; Jack and Arnie, Gary and Tom. I will be the first to say that I am tired of the constant rivalry – making for Tiger the media has sought out over the past decade. A few years ago it was the Big Five (Woods, Mickelson, Singh, Els, and Goosen). That concept flopped just a few months into that season. Last year, it was Villegas and Kim as heir-apparent. This year its Rory McIlroy and even (Japanese kid).

I think that time (and history) will tell who Tiger’s primary rival will be. At the time, many different challengers gave Nicklaus a run for his money, but history revealed that his first rivalry was his most lasting and the one we all remember. From the time Nicklaus first upstaged Arnold Palmer at (research this) to today, Nicklaus-Palmer is the rivalry we all think of first.

Who will be the one who stands the test of time as Tiger’s primary foil? Many have already said that it is Phil Mickelson, five years his senior and in this “fast food” world considered of a different generation. I have resisted this forced rivalry because rarely have we seen the mano a mano battles the media has prayed for time and again. The constant friction between Phil and Tiger created by the media was forced at best.

A rivalry of hated enemies just doesn’t really appeal to me and in the world of sports it has no place. One element of a true rivalry must be some mutual appreciation. Granted there is pure hatred among Packers and Vikings fans that has only been heightened by Brett Favre’s transfer, but if you ask every single Viking and Packer fan separately, there is a soft part in their hearts for the hated enemy. A rivalry based on pure hatred is not a rivalry – it is just pure hatred. Jack and Arnie are everlasting because of a mutual appreciation they have for each other blended perfectly with a raging competitiveness that goes beyond the golf course.

Phil’s victory in the Tour Championship and Tiger’s subsequent Fedex Cup grab a few weeks ago was the culmination of a season in which we will all look back years from now and say, “that is when the true rivalry began”. Granted, they hardly appeared together, played sparingly in the same events, and certainly didn’t have a memorable battle at East Lake that Sunday. Yet at the end of the day, there was a mutual admiration. To me it was clear that they have grown closer together not from their years of common golf but from their maturity as family men and seeing firsthand that life goes beyond the fairways. Life maturity is the one element that kept Tiger and Phil from becoming our generation’s Jack – Arnie. Now it is there.

That said, mutual admiration doesn’t help if one of the combatants isn’t playing up to the proper level. That has changed too. Phil says he is putting like he did when he was a kid. The swing success with Tiger’s old coach, Butch Harmon (another nice rivalry element) was there the past few years, but the putter was lagging. After some time with putting maestro Dave Stockton, Phil came seemingly out of nowhere to win the Tour Championship and his third victory of the year.

Nine victories between them and the media will say this was not a memorable year. Nonetheless, history may show that the end of this season was the beginning of the rivalry we’ve all been looking for. From my perch way up in the cheap seats I get the impression Phil has put life in perspective in 2009. Coupled with a renewed putting game, he’ll be gunning for Tiger with little concern about failure and Tiger will be waiting for him with open arms. 2010 will be a year to remember.

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