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DO WE HAVE A NEW GREAT AMERICAN RIVALRY IN GOLF?

Who do you root for in men's professional golf? Most of us have someone that we really want to win. We might not even let on to others who that person might be. There are so many talented golfers competing today who have a chance to win on tour that we certainly have a smorgasbord of top notch competitors for whom to root. Some of us might have several golfers that we want to see win. We might have favorites on the PGA Tour, favorites on the Champions Tour or those we want to see do well on the ladies circuit. Some might have a favorite from the local area or a golfer from one's alma mater.

The other day I was listening to a local radio sports talk show when a caller called to talk golf. He went on to say that he was connected on Tour with friends who play and caddy. He related that he had heard that Phil Mickelson was not the most popular among some on Tour and that these particular distracters that he knew referred to Lefty as Figjam for “f--- I‘m good, just ask me“. My first reaction was “I wonder who this caller favors?” My first guess was Tiger Woods but he didn’t offer this nor did the host ask him. I find today that most golf fans cheer for Tiger or for Lefty. Others might cheer on stars such as John Daly, Chris DiMarco, Freddy Couples, Davis Love III or Ernie Els at times but most are either in the Tiger Woods camp or the Mickelson camp. Each has millions of fans.

I went on to think of earlier days when similar positions were taken by golf fans choosing one golfer as a favorite over another. Early in American golf history Francis Quimet became a favorite after he became the first American to win the US Open in 1913, but especially when he was going up against one the top players from Great Britain such as rivals Ted Ray or Harry Vardon. Then Bobby Jones, the great amateur would give his great rival Walter Hagen more than he could handle. As a youngster I remember the rivalry between Sam Snead and Ben Hogan. Snead was big at the GGO in Greensboro where I was a regular each year so I was a Snead guy. It was much later in my life that I discovered that Snead in spite of a very positive public personae was actually somewhat unpleasant. He was an entertainer on course but privately he was quite the contrary. If you tried to approach him he shoved people aside as if he had some sort of phobia. When leaving a green encircled by fans he would push his way through the crowd as if threatened. Hogan was not as outgoing on the course as Snead. He was a quiet man who went about doing his job. He probably worked on his game more than any golfer of his era. They were both outstanding and will always be remembered as two of the best in the history of golf and great rivals.

Later, I became a big fan of Arnold Palmer. He had attended Wake Forest not too far from my home so I got interested in him early in his career. Arnie was very different from Snead as he had a personal charm about him and the fans loved him. He was as good up close and personal as he was behind the ropes. He had charisma and thousands flocked to see him hitch up his trousers and charge his way around the course. Arnie had a way of looking at his galleries. He would scan the crowd around the ropes and it seemed as if he looked each person directly in the eyes and with a smile on his lips. One would feel that Arnie was looking only at him or her. If you haven't experienced that look you can't understand this special way he had about him. Millions of golf fans adored him.

Then came Jack Nicklaus and he was the adversary because he was challenging Arnie week after week. Jack was overweight and had a smirk on his face that did not attract as many fans. There were a lot of very unkind things said about "Fat Jack". Jack and Arnie battled each other at majors in the 1960's primarily and especially at Augusta where Arnie won four green jackets and Nicklaus six in time. But as Arnie grew older and his game began to fade more and more people started cheering for Nicklaus. He soon became the best golfer in the game and that attracted fans. He slimmed down and improved his public image which attracted more fans. He became the "Golden Bear". As time went by we all learned how devoted a family he was and how he would fly home from tournaments on Friday nights to watch his sons play prep football and then fly back for his Saturday round wherever it might be. Nicklaus never really had the kind of charisma that Arnie had but he was a solid citizen and was by far the best player in the world during his prime. He also set a great example in terms of golf etiquette and sportsmanship . He was a special man and still is. Jack's next great rival became Lee Trevino, "The Merry Mex". Trevino would win eight majors while Jack was still in his prime. Then along came Tom Watson who battled Jack at majors and most notably at the British Open. Jack, Lee, Tom and Arnie showed the public that they could be great rivals and competitors but good friends at the same time. These great rivalries made golf exciting.

Now we have Tiger and Lefty. Tiger to me is the ultimate competitor with the "killer instinct". His father raised him from the earliest age to be a winner, a competitor. He is the quintessential alpha male athlete. He wants to win in golf more than anybody in the world. He would kill to win. To some he is so competitive that he loses control and uses foul language on the course and has been known to sling his club at his golf bag. Not perhaps the best example for youngsters. Above all else he is a winner and will perhaps, in time, become the greatest golfer in history. His fans love him because he can do things on the golf course that no one in history has been able to achieve. On the other hand Phil Mickelson is a family man. He has three kids and a wife at home and he, like Nicklaus, obviously sees his family as his top priority. He likes to win but he doesn’t seem to have the same killer instinct as his rival. Often he seems distracted. He obviously isn’t trying to become the greatest player in golf history. If he was shooting for number one he would rearrange priorities. Why do the fans like him? Lefty is exciting to watch. He likes to gamble on the course; he gets in trouble then works his way out of it. He can go low with the best. He does it with a smile on his face. He will sign autographs hours on end and he behaves himself on course. No foul language, no throwing clubs, always a smile on his face and a wave to the crowd. Lefty is also the underdog. People like to root for the underdog. Both golfers have a huge fan base. You can really see the fan reaction in majors when both golfers are in the hunt.

Personally, I like them both and enjoy watching them play at the high level that they are both so capable. Also, I really like rivalries. Down through the history of golf there has always been rivalry with the fans choosing one golfer or another to cheer on and it makes the game more exciting to watch. As for “figjam“, Lefty is good and he knows it but I would not exactly consider Tiger unassuming or humble. All great golfers have big egos. That is what drives them to championships and the glory that follows.

(Writer's Note - Yesterday Phil Mickelson won his second major in a row with his second green jacket and was elevated to second in the world rankings behind Tiger Woods at one. Do we have a rivalry, yes we most certainly do. Noted April 10th, 2006)


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