News & Opinion

Does golf need a good rivalry to thrive?

LAKE FOREST, Ill. – My doctor told me something troubling a few weeks ago. No, not my weight, wise guy.

The doc classified himself as merely a casual observer of golf. He said he likes Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy “and those other guys,” and they were obviously extremely good players who seemed like good guys but … they just don’t interest him. He doesn’t find them compelling.

The doc’s favorite was Tiger Woods, of course. That’s hardly a fair comparison, because golf never had a show quite like Woods, before or since. Stewart Cink said of Woods, “He’s not one in a million; he’s one in ever.”

Still, his comments made me wonder how many other fans feel the same way about today’s stars. Ardent golf followers and the golf media find Spieth, McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Jason Day and Justin Thomas to be a fun, compelling bunch. Woods and Phil Mickelson were golf’s focus for almost two decades. Now we’ve got elite golf by committee.

Is that less interesting? For my doc, yes. Not for me. This year’s four majors were a solid A-minus from an excitement standpoint. Long-term, multiple stars may create a better opportunity for rivalries.

Golf rivalries are rare as Triple Crowns because you need top players to square off in big tournaments – mainly majors – more than once. Although Woods and Mickelson were long-time adversaries, they never really had that major moment together. The Bethpage Black U.S. Open in 2002 probably was the closest, but they weren’t paired in the final round, and Woods never looked in danger of not winning.

Jack Nicklaus became Arnold Palmer’s rival after the 1962 U.S. Open, when he upset Palmer in a playoff at Oakmont, Arnie’s home territory. Lee Trevino took a pair of majors away from Nicklaus. So did Tom Watson. Those became rivalries. Since then, our cupboard has been bare.

Lately, I’ve read stories about the friendly relationships between today’s young guns, notably Spieth and Thomas, who have been pals since junior golf and gone on buddy trips together with Rickie Fowler. When Thomas won the PGA, Spieth waited by the 18th green to give him a congratulatory hug. When Spieth lost a playoff against Johnson three weeks ago at the Northern Trust, Thomas was there to console his friend. Spieth also was there two weeks ago when Thomas edged him to win the Dell Technologies Championship.

The golf story du jour is whether these guys are too nice and too friendly.

“When are the two of you going to start behaving like proper, bitter rivals?” a reporter jokingly asked Spieth here Wednesday before the start of the BMW Championship.

Spieth laughed. “It’s not like we played on the same team when we were 14,” Spieth said. “We were always playing against each other. I promise you, when we’re out there and he’s got a 6-footer to win the tournament and I’m standing there on the green, I’m rooting for him to miss so we can go to a playoff and I can beat him. That’s just how it works as a competitor. When you aren’t the one who pulls it off and one of the people you’re very close to does, then it’s cool, really cool for us.”

Thomas agreed that he and Spieth don’t have a rivalry. “That word is thrown around a lot when it doesn’t need to be,” he said. “We played against each other when we were 14, 16, 18 and 20, and we’re still having just as much fun now as we were then.”

It’s not just Spieth and Thomas who are potential rivals. Spieth and Johnson go back to the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, when Johnson three-putted the 72nd hole to hand the title to Spieth. Day was in the mix there, too, despite battling vertigo on the weekend.

Day posted a record 20-under score to outrun Spieth at the 2015 PGA at Whistling Straits. McIlroy has had a quiet past three years, but he is a former No. 1 in the world. At 28, he’s too young and too good not to be a factor again. 

Johnson, 33, is the old man in this group. The rest are in their 20s, so they have the potential to be around for a long time. Most of these guys already have some history with one another. If they play their best or even something near it for the next decade, they should bump into one another on the back nine Sunday at more than a few majors. We could get lucky and see that happen this week at Conway Farms Golf Club. Who knows?

Golf wouldn’t mind a good rivalry. It might be enough to attract my doctor’s attention.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email:; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle