THROUGHOUT its long and storied history, golf has been blessed by an equally lengthy list of healthy rivalries. As the 19th century evolved into the 20th, the so-called “Great Triumvirate” of Harry Vardon, James Braid and JH Taylor emerged.
Between them, the trio amassed as many as 16 Open Championship victories, with Vardon – whose overlapping grip remains the most popular method of holding a golf club – just edging the other two, six to five apiece.
In the years following the Great War, the best player on the planet was actually an amateur, the incomparable Bobby Jones. But even the only man to achieve a calendar Grand Slam – that of US Open and Amateur, Open and Amateur – in 1930 had men to beat. Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen both had their moments of glory, to name but two.
Both before and after the Second World War, golf at the highest level was dominated by three men, all born in the same calendar year: Sam Snead, Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan. Very different people and very different players, each brought their own personalities to the game and all, in their own ways, hugely enhanced the popularity of the game at a time of trans-Atlantic austerity. In that respect alone, the trio’s historical importance cannot be overstated.
Come the 1960s, a Cleveland lawyer by the name of Mark McCormack was smart enough to exploit golf’s propensity to produce groups of great players. So it was that he devised the “Big Three” of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. Even if such a moniker was more than unfair to luminaries like Billy Casper and Peter Thomson, it is hard to argue McCormack’s men, with their total of 34 major victories, did not merit their exalted status.
The youngest and best of the three, Nicklaus, spent the 1970s picking off a series of rivals, popularly known as the “next Nicklaus”. So it was that Johnny Miller, Tom Weiskopf and Tom Watson all came and went with varying degrees of success grappling with the Golden Bear.
In the 1980s, golf’s power base crossed the Atlantic. Seve Ballesteros was first to emerge, but the Spaniard was quickly followed by four others – all of them born within 12 months of each other. And for the next 15 years or so, Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle, Ian Woosnam and Nick Faldo joined Ballesteros in dominating the game Scotland gave to the world. As a result of their largely friendly rivalry – anyone who witnessed Faldo’s tears at Seve’s funeral would have a hard time arguing otherwise – the European Tour expanded hugely in both prize money and popularity.
Next up was the era of Tiger Woods. But even the man who has surely played golf better than anyone else ever has – Nicklaus included – had a couple of others pushing him on. OK, maybe Phil Mickelson and, to a lesser extent, Ernie Els didn’t step up often enough to really push the great man, but their presence was part of why Woods worked as hard as he did – pre-scandal at least – to maintain his peerless form.
Post-Tiger – if such a phrase isn’t premature – the search has been on for the next great rivalry. There are those who yearn for Woods to return to something like his best in order to challenge today’s pre-eminent performer, Rory McIlroy. But most observers seem more inclined to anoint world No.14 Rickie Fowler as the man most likely to fill the gap and become the Messi to the Ulsterman’s Ronaldo.
Long-term, of course, such a scenario would surely be best for the game worldwide. McIlroy versus Fowler has many of the key ingredients required of any proper rivalry. Both are enormously appealing to younger fans in their colourful Nike and Puma gear. There’s the Europe versus America thing. And both play the game in an exciting fashion; neither is pre-disposed to the notion of playing safe. So excitement of all kinds is almost guaranteed.
Ah, but here’s the rub. Right now, McIlroy is clearly the better player. Longer off the tee – way longer – at a time when pure distance has never before offered such an advantage, the Ulsterman has a 40 to 50-yard edge that is almost impossible to consistently overcome. Yes, Fowler will occasionally prevail – as he did in Korea in 2011 – but as has already become apparent, McIlroy is superior in almost every department of the game. Hitting wedges into greens when your opponent has already used his 6-iron is a formula for success that is tough to beat.
Still, at least publicly, Fowler hasn’t conceded defeat. This week in Abu Dhabi he displayed an admirable bravado in the face of questioning regarding his ability to seriously challenge the world’s best player.
“Yes, he’s got the edge,” said the 26-year-old Californian. “He’s the No.1 in the world and won two majors last year. In comparison, I’m not off to the hottest of starts to my career – only two worldwide wins, one on the PGA Tour. I’d like to start adding to that and make myself a little bit more prominent.”
No easy task. Take the opening rounds played by both men in Abu Dhabi last Thursday. Both shot 67, five under par. Both made six birdies. And both dropped just one shot. Statistically at least, they were remarkably similar.
But even someone who had not watched a shot either man hit that morning only had to listen to the pair’s post-round interviews to determine the identity of the better player. Where Fowler exuded satisfaction with his day’s work, McIlroy was quick to express frustration with his play, especially when he had his driver in his hand. For one, 67 represented a great score. For the other, it was merely OK.
Let’s not be too harsh though. The pair are clearly pals and McIlroy was quick to acknowledge the role his playing partner played in maintaining his concentration during what was his first competitive round of 2015.
“Rickie was kicking me on for sure,” said the Open champion. “I was trying to keep up with him. I didn’t want him to get too far ahead. It looked like he was going to shoot a really low one while I was stuck in neutral. So I needed to get something going. I just wanted to stay as close to him as possible and, thankfully, I was able to do that.”
Kind words. But right now it is something of a stretch to see this as a long-term rivalry to, eh, rival some of those in the past. Last year Fowler was rightly praised for finishing in the top-five at all four major championships. But take a closer look. McIlroy won two of those events. And he already has four majors to his name. Three months from now he will arrive in Augusta needing to win the Masters in order to complete a career Grand Slam. If he does so, he will go on to the US Open holding three of the four. Can a man who has won only a Justin Timberlake Shriner’s Hospital for Children Open and a Kolon Korea Open really be a serious rival? I think not.