Sports Nut

Tiger vs. Nobody

Will the lack of a suitable rival hurt Tiger Woods’ legacy?

Tiger Woods

In the introduction to Arnie and Jack, Ian O’Connor’s new book on the rivalry between Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, the author asks Tiger Woods if something was missing from his career for the lack of a great rival on the course. “Tiger,” O’Connor writes, “measured the thought for a moment and loosed that killer smile of his. ‘No,’ he said.”

Woods is a huge favorite to win this weekend’s Masters. A victory will give him 14 majors, just four shy of Jack Nicklaus’ record. Tiger is the highest-paid athlete in the world, he’s playing the best golf of his life, and he has a legitimate claim to being the greatest player who ever lived. There’s not a lot missing from that package. But the point of O’Connor’s question is clear, as is the point of relating this anecdote at the start of a book dedicated to two of the sport’s luminaries. Throughout Tiger’s career, golf pundits have opined that, great as he is, the absence of a foil like Arnie or Jack will hinder the reckoning of Tiger’s legend. This is an alluring idea, but it’s got Tiger and golf all wrong.

The yin-and-yang theory of greatness is a familiar argument that cuts across all sports. Borg needed McEnroe’s challenge to elevate him, and vice versa. Likewise for Russell and Chamberlain, and the two names atop the Mount Olympus of sports rivalries, Ali and Frazier.

Thus far, no Frazier has emerged to counter Woods’ Ali-like dominance. Phil Mickelson has been the nearest candidate, and yet, for all his talent, he has only three major titles. Since his historic collapse in the 2006 U.S. Open, Mickelson’s best finish in a major is a tie for 16th—while he’s a fan favorite just like Palmer was, it’s looking highly unlikely that there will ever be a book titled Tiger and Phil.

That said, it’s not Mickelson’s fault that this isn’t a great rivalry. Golf is an individual sport, but it isn’t a head-to-head competition (or it is only rarely, and not in the major championships) and doesn’t lend itself naturally to an enduring tug of war. Tennis is a head-to-head sport that’s been defined historically by famous duos—Laver and Rosewall, Borg and Johnny Mac, Sampras and Agassi, and now Federer and Nadal. In golf, though, there’s really been only one such defining rivalry. The idea that a titanic figure should emerge from the field, putter in hand, to engage Tiger in a series of man-to-man throwdowns is an idea rooted entirely in the mythology of Nicklaus and Palmer.

And reading Ian O’Connor’s Arnie and Jack, one gets the sense that the circumstances that led to the pairing of Palmer and Nicklaus were unique and unlikely to be repeated. In sheer golf terms, their rivalry wasn’t so much an ongoing struggle between peers as it was an overlapping of the greatest players of two different eras, one of whom proved to be unquestionably greater than the other.

Ten years younger than his rival, Nicklaus came along at a time when Palmer was an uncontested champion and icon who drew raucous hordes of fans, “Arnie’s Army,” behind his every stroll down the fairway. Into this scene stepped the young Jack, overweight, awkward, and cocky as all get-out, the blond, bloated Peter Lorre to Palmer’s Bogart.

In this drama, however, the bad guy nearly always won. Shortly after he turned pro, “Fat Jack,” as he was then unfortunately known, beat Palmer in an 18-hole playoff at the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club, not far from Palmer’s hometown of Latrobe, Pa. Beating the King in the heart of his kingdom did not go over well with Arnie’s Army. That inaugural battle at Oakmont set the template for the Arnie-and-Jack rivalry: Palmer’s fans, fiercely loyal, cheering for their man and mercilessly heckling his hated foe, while Jack, wounded by their scorn, exacted his revenge with victory after victory, slowly driving the aging Arnie into obsolescence.

Palmer would win only two more majors after his showdown with Nicklaus at Oakmont. His seventh and last came at the 1964 Masters, where Nicklaus, the 1963 champion, helped him into his green jacket. Nicklaus also won his final major—his record-setting 18th—at Augusta, but it came in 1986, 22 years after Arnie’s last stand.

When you consider that timeline, it seems ridiculous that the two golfers are linked together in our minds. It’s a testament to the fact that their on-course battles came at the dawn of golf’s popularity as a television spectacle. They were also perfect counterpoints to each other, so starkly different in style and appearance, each in full possession of something the other dearly coveted. As O’Connor puts it, “Arnie had the fans and wanted the trophies. Nicklaus had the trophies and wanted the fans.”

Which brings us back to Woods, today’s golfer-king who has the trophies and the fans but no rival. Going by the Arnie-and-Jack index, it’s hard to imagine what this absent adversary could add to Tiger’s narrative, because Tiger himself is the entire equation. As the most charismatic and marketable golfer who’s ever lived, he is the clear heir to Palmer, the sport’s first great salesman-idol. And, of course, he is the only credible heir to Nicklaus, simply because he’s so overwhelmingly and consistently dominant.

In the end, the yin-and-yang theory falls apart when it comes to golf. The best golfers play the course and not the man. This was Nicklaus’ great edge over Palmer from the start. All of Arnie’s Army couldn’t budge Jack’s intractable will, but his relentless excellence got inside Palmer’s head and made him an old man before his time.

Woods has exerted a similar power over his opponents. You can make the case statistically (an economist at Berkeley has shown that other golfers play worse when Tiger is in the field), and you can see it with your own eyes in the final rounds of majors. While Tiger has had his share of career-defining duels—Sergio at Medinah, Bob May at Valhalla, Chris DiMarco at the Masters—you never got the sense that he was playing those guys exactly, although they most definitely were playing him.

Tiger’s sights have always been on bigger game. In Arnie and Jack, O’Connor recounts a conversation that Nicklaus had after playing against the son of Bobby Jones in the 1959 U.S. Amateur. Nineteen years old at the time, Nicklaus said, “Jones is the greatest golfer who ever lived and probably ever will live. That’s my goal, Bobby Jones. It’s the only goal.”

Tiger has a similar goal, always has. He also has one hell of a rival. Golf’s marquee showdown is Tiger vs. Jack, and it’s on again this weekend in Augusta.