Golf needs some rivalries

Originally Published: October 24, 2004
By Jason Sobel | ESPN.com

If you missed Ryan Palmer's victory at Disney, we forgive you.

If you failed to catch the highlights of Mark McNulty's win at the Charles Schwab Cup Championship, it's OK.

Never even heard of D.J. Trahan, who won the Nationwide Tour's Miccosukee Championship? Don't worry about it.

After all, there was plenty of NFL football, preseason hoops and playoff baseball to fill up your TV-watching schedule.

Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer
Getty ImagesGolf could use another rivalry like Jack and Arnie.

Speaking of the postseason, the Weekly 18 starts with the suggestion that maybe if golf had a rivalry of Red Sox/Yankees proportions (OK, without the policemen armed in riot gear), you'd actually still be tuned in this time of year.

1.
Where's the rivalry?

Jack and Arnie had each other.

Sure, they also had Player, Trevino, Jacklin and Casper -- all formidable competitors. But for an entire golfing generation, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer were each other's biggest rival, raising their own game to higher levels while raising the level of their sport among the consciousness of the American sports fan.

Muscular family man Jack was the Golden Boy, groomed with a golfing pedigree his entire life, destined for greatness from an early age. Free-swinging Arnie was a man of the people, earning such a closeness with his followers they named an Army after him.

Forty-four years after Palmer held off an amateur Nicklaus in the U.S. Open at Cherry Hills to begin their decades-long battle, golf is still searching for a rivalry that comes anywhere close to those proportions.

In fact, the closest we've seen involves teams of players in the Ryder Cup. A terrific competition, sure, but should this generation's greatest rivalry be one that competes against each other every other year?

Still, the search for the post-Nicklaus/Palmer 1-2 punch has become an exercise in futility. Ballesteros, Kite, Watson, Floyd and Strange were the best of the 1980s, but no two breached the level of true rivals. Faldo and Norman certainly had their give-and-take (see: 1996 Masters), but Norman was No. 1 in the world for 331 different weeks spanning 13 years, while Faldo held the top spot for a total of less than two years.

And then there was Tiger. For main rivals, he sliced his way through Els, Mickelson and Duval, only to see Els and Mickelson rise again (and don't be surprised if Duval follows suit in '05), though not necessarily at the expense of Woods. Tiger and Vijay? Some bad blood, sure, and this year's Deutsche Bank Classic was closest thing we've seen to Cherry Hills since, well, Cherry Hills.

Still, Woods and Singh hardly scream RIVALRY the way Yankees/Red Sox does. Perhaps it is because they have finished 1-2 in only that Labor Day tournament in Boston this year. Or because many of Tiger's high points have paralleled Vijay's lows, and vice versa. Or simply because Singh is 41 years old and Tiger is only 28. After all, Ali and Marciano weren't rivals. Neither were McEnroe and Sampras. Or the Beatles and Pearl Jam.

Golf needs its next rivalry to blossom from its younger generation. Tiger and Sergio Garcia have had their duels. Adam Scott, Charles Howell III and Luke Donald are all formidable foes under 30. You can even throw amateur wunderkind Ryan Moore into the mix.

There's a reason why seemingly everyone in the country tuned into Red Sox/Yankees Game 7 on Wednesday. To watch two bitters rivals compete head-to-head on the world's biggest stage is great theater. Those who preside over the game of golf should hope it captures some of this magic and recaptures some of the Jack and Arnie glory days to once again steal the hearts, minds and imaginations of American sports fans.

2.
Ryan's hope

Before Ryan Palmer's second-place finish at the Southern Farm Bureau Classic earlier this month, he had never finished in the top 10 in 28 previous starts on tour. He earned $324,000 that week, ensuring his place on tour in 2005. But with 16 missed cuts in 31 events entering Disney, Palmer was still somewhat of an anomaly on tour. Not anymore. With a closing-round 62 during which he held off the official Hottest Golfer on the Planet, Vijay Singh, Palmer proved he's come a long way since being a Tight Lies Tour champion just a few years ago. Now fully exempt through 2006, expect Palmer to mature into a solid tour player.

3.
Singh for the money

We're running out of superlatives to describe Vijay Singh's record-setting season. So how about a comparison that may make you take notice: Singh's $9,825,166 in earnings so far this season is over $4 million more than Jack Nicklaus -- he of the 18-major, Greatest Golfer Ever-deigned career -- made in lifetime earnings. Wonder if Jack wishes he was born a few decades later. Surely, he would have cashed in a little more than the $5,734,031 he actually made.

4.
Long and short of it

At last month's Canadian Open, Tom Lehman switched from a shorter, standard putter to a long putter and promptly shot a final-round 64 and finished in a share of fourth place -- his best result of the season. Since then Lehman has notched three more top-tens in his last four starts and missed sending the Michelin Championship to a playoff by one stroke. After earning under a half-million dollars in his first 14 events of the year, Lehman has made $915,000 in his last five starts.

Coming up this week
PGA Tour

Chrysler Championship
  • The question isn't, Who do you like to win this event?; it's, Whom would you rather have -- Vijay Singh or the field? Eight times this season choosing the latter would have been a losing proposition. We like the guys who still have something to play for, so it's not out of the realm of possibility to expect a big week from Olin Browne (No. 125 on the money list), Craig Barlow (126), Bob Burns (128) or Lucas Glover (131).

    LPGA Tour

    CJ Nine Bridges Classic
  • We always like taking a hometown player, but there are too many choices for this Korean-based event. Grace Park, Shi Hyun Ahn and Gloria Park will all play well, but the pick here is the queen of Korean golf, Se Ri Pak.
  • 5.
    Leh-ing up

    The news hasn't all been good for Lehman, however. In each of his last three starts, Lehman held at least a share of the lead entering the final round and in all three he shot his worst round of the week on Sunday. The results? A T-2 at the Michelin, T-4 at the Chrysler and T-6 at Disney -- and a fourth straight season without a victory.

    6.
    Honesty is the best policy for Lehman

    If you buy a container of milk from the store and receive change for a $20 bill, even though you handed the cashier a $10, do you keep it? Or do you notify the person behind the counter of their error and hand back the extra $10? If you chose the latter, you're probably Tom Lehman's kind of person. At last week's Chrysler Classic of Greensboro, Lehman assessed himself a one-stroke penalty when he thought his ball may have moved as he addressed a putt. "Right at the time I was making my stroke, it moved so little I wasn't even sure if it wobbled or not," Lehman said. "If the ball moved at all, it moved one billionth of an inch, it was so imperceptible. Nobody saw it, but I saw it. At least I think I saw it. It was so incredibly small I wasn't even sure." The admission cost Lehman about $60,000 and seven or eight spots on the money list, but ensured his spot as one of the game's most honest players on tour.

    7.
    Moving day

    The biggest winner in this week's battle to keep a card was Cameron Beckman. Entering the Disney, Beckman was squarely on the bubble at No. 123 on the money list, but a T-4 finish earned him $184,800 -- enough to vault to No. 103 on the list and certainly enough to remain a fully exempt member in 2005.

    8.
    Playing Billy ball

    How about the round from Billy Andrade on Sunday? At No. 126 on the money list entering the week, Andrade shot three consecutive rounds of 3-under 69 to enter the final day at T-36. On Sunday, Andrade birdied three of his first four holes on the front nine and four of his first five on the back to finish with a 66. His share of 15th place resulted in a $57,015 check and moved him up five spots and into the top 125 ... for now.

    9.
    Huston, we have a problem

    John Huston led all PGA Tour players in putting average last season with 1.713 putts per hole and success followed, as he finished 42nd on the money list. This year, however, Huston's putting has fallen off so much that he was ranked 195th on tour entering the Disney, with 1.825 putts per hole. His success -- or lack thereof -- has followed suit; Huston ranked 99th on the money list before Disney. Do some math: The .112 putt per hole difference equates to just over two strokes for every 18 holes. Accumulated over a four-day event, Huston has lost more than eight strokes per round from a year ago and the difference has shown in his wallet. Compare those numbers to what Huston accomplished on the Bermuda greens at Disney -- 1.472 putts per hole, tied for first this week -- and it's easy to see how his T-10 finish was his best result since April.

    10.
    Duval's wild ride

    David Duval played a little Elevator Golf this week at Disney. You got it: He was up-and-down throughout Thursday and Friday. Duval carded five birdies, 22 pars, seven bogeys and two double-bogeys en route to a 76-74 and missed the cut for the sixth time in nine events this season. Don't write off Duval for next year, however. After all, a year ago at this time, many people were wondering if Phil Mickelson would ever again reach the levels he had before his down season of 2003. At least Duval's still having fun, as we're reminded by TV announcers every time we're shown a shot of him. Case in point, this tidbit from Tuesday: After finishing nine holes of practice, Duval grabbed a fishing rod from his cart, inspected the reel and started casting into the creek behind the 18th green. Doesn't sound like a guy who's too worried about his future on tour.

    11.
    Tampa Bay bucks

    In only four years (the 2001 event was canceled due to Sept. 11), the Chrysler Championship has grown into one of the more prestigious late-season events on tour. In 2000, the tournament then known as the Tampa Bay Classic, featured John Huston winning over Carl Paulson with journeymen such as Craig Barlow and Doug Barron finishing in the top 10. Not exactly must-see TV. Last year, most of the tour's big names were entered and played very well as Retief Goosen held off competitors Vijay Singh, Chad Campbell, Davis Love III and Stephen Ames en route to the title. This week's version of the event should promise to be more of the same, as Singh and Goosen will be joined in the field once again by Love, Stewart Cink and Phil Mickelson (who is looking to atone for an opening-round 80 a year ago). Why so many big names? One theory is that the event works as a solid precursor to next week's Tour Championship, but it probably has to do more with the above-average $900,000 winner's check that will be awarded on Sunday afternoon.

    12.
    A Wie bit more in '05?

    According to reports this week, Michelle Wie will once again seek a sponsor's exemption to play in the Sony Open, where earlier this year she finished one stroke away from becoming the first woman to make the cut at a men's event. Some pundits have criticized Wie's schedule this year (she eschewed many amateur tournaments in favor of accepting LPGA sponsor's exemptions), but she more than held her own against the world's best. In just seven LPGA events, Wie finished in the top 20 in six of them; had she been a professional, Wie would have earned $257,931 and finished 43rd on the money list while playing in only about one-third of the tour's events. Now 15 (her birthday was Oct. 11), don't be surprised if Wie plays a similar schedule in '05 and even wins a professional tournament. Don't be surprised if that's followed by Wie and her father B.J. taking legal action against the LPGA to let the minor receive professional status on tour. After all, with all that prize money and expected sponsorship deals, the Wies may want to strike while the iron (and driver, wedges and putter) is hot.

    13.
    California dreamin'

    Last week's Weekly 18 mentioned that Tom Kite is 0-for-104 in career events in his home state of Texas. Stranger still is Kite's stellar record in California, where he held nine career titles entering this week, including the 1992 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. On Sunday, Kite missed out on No. 10, losing to McNulty by one stroke at the season-ending Charles Schwab Cup Championship.

    14.
    The Weekley 18

    We like former PGA Tour player Boo Weekley so much we named this column after him. OK, maybe not, but that doesn't mean Weekley's not fun to root for anyway. The former tour member, who lost his card after spending all of 2003 on tour, Weekley was known more for his camouflage pants than his ability to blend into the "Failed to Qualify" section of leaderboards. This week Weekley took the first step toward gaining a card for '05, finishing fourth (with scores of 68-67-68-68) in the first stage of PGA Tour Q-school at TPC at Heron Bay, one of five qualifying sites this past week. Five more courses will host a first stage of qualifying this coming week.

    15.
    Amateurs no longer

    Weekley wasn't the only notable player enjoying success at Heron Bay. 2003 U.S. Amateur champ Nick Flanagan was medalist at the site, while '01 Amateur winner Bubba Dickerson came in 14th. Both qualified for the second stage. If they make it through there, they will continue to the third and final stage in December, where 2005 tour cards will be awarded.

    16.
    Still battling

    When Charles Warren won the Cox Classic on Aug. 8, he became the fifth Nationwide Tour player with two wins this season (joining D.A. Points, Kevin Stadler, Daniel Chopra and Jimmy Walker). Since then, 10 tournaments have passed and none of the five have claimed a third title, meaning there is only one event left -- the season-ending Tour Championship -- in which we could see a player earn a battlefield promotion.

    17.
    Gutschewski's gut-check

    Sure, staying in the top-125 on the PGA Tour is tough, but how about the race to even make The Show? The top 20 on the Nationwide Tour's money list at the end of the season earn their 2005 PGA Tour cards and the battle is fierce. Entering this week's Miccosukee Championship, the final full-field event on tour, No. 20 Brett Wetterich led No. 21 Scott Gutschewski by a mere $352, but the latter's $17,562 check for a share of fourth place was well more than Wetterich's $1,612, giving Gutschewski a leg up entering the tour's final week.

    18.
    Quote of the week

    "Guess I'll get to watch football this weekend."
    --John Daly, while addressing his ball in the trees on the 14th hole of the Magnolia course on Friday. Daly turned out to be prophetic, as he bogeyed the hole and finished at 3 under through two days, missing the cut by one stroke.

    Information from ESPN.com's wire services is included.

    Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.

    Jason Sobel | email

    Golf Editor, ESPN.com
    Jason Sobel, who joined ESPN in 1997, earned four Sports Emmy awards as a member of ESPN's Studio Production department. He became ESPN.com's golf editor in July 2004.

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