What do you get the golfer who has everything? Last Christmas,
David Duval's girlfriend, Julie McArthur, got her beau all 20
volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary. No wonder, then, Duval
frowns upon all the talk of his "rivalry" with Tiger Woods. It's
not the right word.
"It takes two people to make a rivalry, right?" Duval asks.
"What if they never contend in the same tournaments--is that
still a rivalry? The thing about golf is that it's pretty rare
when two players are peaking at the same time. You just can't
schedule it." Sad but true. In the 2 1/2 years since Woods
turned pro, he and Duval have yet to stage a final-round
shootout to decide a tournament. Last year they teed it up at
the same event 15 times, and on only three occasions did both
crack the top 10--the Mercedes Championships, the Masters and
the World Series, all limited-field events. Even during those
weeks, when both players ostensibly had their A games, they
never finished within four strokes of each other and together
produced only one victory (Duval's at the World Series, when
Woods finished in a distant tie for fifth). This season they
combined to win three of the Tour's first six tournaments, but
while one was surging to victory, the other was nowhere to be
found. Predictably, the much dreamed-about matchup in the finals
of the World Match Play didn't come close to materializing.
True rivalries are not created in the press or by the computers
that spit out the World Ranking. History tells us that they are
forged inside the ropes, preferably in the majors, and until
Duval and Woods go mano a mano, their alleged rivalry will
remain merely theoretical.
The good news is that it could take no more than a handful of
duels to propel Woods and Duval's relationship into the ranks of
the historic. In the post-Hogan epoch there have been three
rivalries that lived up to any definition of the
word--Palmer-Nicklaus throughout the 1960s, Nicklaus-Trevino in
the early '70s, and Nicklaus-Watson in the late '70s and early
'80s. All were built on classic confrontations, but not as many
as you might think. What they lacked in frequency, they made up
for in artistic merit and historical importance.
March 15, 1999
Nicklaus and Palmer first tangoed at the 1960 U.S. Open, which
was later to be recognized as the King's coronation and the
coming-out party for Fat Jack, who finished second as a
20-year-old amateur. Two years later at the Open they had their
most meaningful showdown, an 18-hole playoff at Oakmont, in
Arnie's backyard, and Nicklaus's victory, his first as a pro,
signaled a seismic shift in the golf world. Three times in the
next five seasons Nicklaus and Palmer finished one-two in a
major. Nicklaus won twice, including at the '67 Open, when they
were paired in the final group over the last two rounds.
Trevino popped up on Nicklaus's radar screen when the Merry Mex
won the 1968 U.S. Open, marking the first of four times he would
relegate Jack to runner-up status in a major. The rivalry became
intense in the '71 Open at Merion, where Trevino won an 18-hole
playoff, and the next year he halted Jack's bid for the Grand
Slam, beating the Bear by a shot at the British Open. Trevino
also clipped Nicklaus by a shot at the '74 PGA.
Watson staked his claim to the Bear's throne in 1977, trumping
Nicklaus in a taut Masters and then staring him down in the
greatest duel in golf history, at the British Open at Turnberry.
They had two other epic tete-a-tetes--at the 1981 Masters, when
Watson held off a hard-charging Nicklaus, and at the '82 U.S.
Open at Pebble Beach, when he slayed Nicklaus with the game's
most famous chip-in.
We remember these encounters because they elevated both the
players involved and their sport. Duval and Woods can take golf
even higher, having arrived during an unparalleled confluence of
TV, money and fan interest. Only four years apart in age, they
will face each other in their primes. The addition of the World
Golf Championships will also improve the odds of Duval and Woods
duking it out, as both players consolidate their schedules
around the same marquee events.
There is no question that Duval and Woods are the most explosive
talents in golf, capable of a first-one-to-30-under-par-wins
duel the likes of which the game has never seen. It might happen
next month at Augusta. Or maybe it will never happen. Right now
we can be content with just the possibility.