Sports needs rivalries. Yankees-Red Sox, Cavs-Warriors, Tar Heels-Blue Devils, Patriots vs. anybody.
Golf has the same need. Look back in history: Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson. Arnold Palmer-Jack Nicklaus. Greg Norman-Nick Faldo.
We really wanted a rival for Tiger Woods, but no one stepped up. We thought for a while that it might be Phil Mickelson, and as good as Mickelson was, Woods had no equal, therefore no rival.
We have that chance now. If you watched last week’s Northern Trust, the battle down to the finish between Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth might not have been epic, but if it happens again, we could have something special brewing (“Johnson outlasts Spieth in playoff bout,” Aug. 28, http://bit.ly/2iK8Wfs).
Think about it: They are two of the three or four best players in the world. When they are simultaneously at the top of their games, as they were at the Northern Trust, hardly anyone is better.
Johnson is No. 1 in the world and won three straight events this year before the Masters. He clearly was playing better golf than anyone else. But that unfortunate spill in his rental home on the eve of the year’s first major spoiled what might have been Johnson’s first green jacket.
Spieth is No. 2 in the world, and his remarkable return from the brink in the final round of the British Open will be etched into the game’s history.
Johnson can overpower any golf course. When he drives it well, he hits a lot of wedges into par 4s and mid-irons into par 5s. And he has put in a great amount of work on his wedge game, the best example of which was the lob wedge that he hit into the Northern Trust playoff hole to within 3 feet.
Spieth, as everyone now knows, can out-putt anyone. And a great putter can more than offset huge distances off the tee.
Their personalities couldn’t be more different. Spieth is animated and talkative, while Johnson hardly changes expression over any shot, good or not. The fist pump that he delivered when he made the par putt at the 72nd hole to get into the playoff was way out of character. But the meaning of it was that he really does care, whether he shows it or not.
Though Spieth smiled and congratulated Johnson at the end, it was a strained smile. If you saw the look in his eyes, the expression was that he absolutely hated to lose that way and he couldn’t wait to get the chance to return the favor.
In many ways, this is the perfect golf rivalry. They have different games and different personas. Each wants to win as badly – they think it’s more – than the other.
Spieth can’t be rivals with Rickie Fowler and Justin Thomas. They’re too close as friends. Not that they don’t want to beat one another if they have the opportunity. But you don’t go on spring break with your rivals.
If Johnson has friends, hardly anyone knows who they are, outside of his brother/caddie Austin and his future father-in-law, Wayne Gretzky. Johnson is now a family man, and he seems to be settling into that role.
No one else seems to fit in this scenario. Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama can’t be a rival for anyone because he’s strictly competing against his country’s history and his own potential.
Rory McIlroy could be a rival to Johnson or Spieth, but he’s too mercurial. You never seem to know when you’ll get McIlroy’s best stuff.
Jason Day could be a rival, but who knows what’s happening with him. And Jon Rahm has the potential to be a player who could cut your heart out and stomp it flat, but it’s still too early to tell.
As far as Johnson and Spieth are concerned, they’re having no talk of a rivalry.
“We enjoy competing against one another,” Johnson said. “As far as Jordan being my biggest rival, I don’t know. There are a lot of tough competitors out there. The top 10 players in the world are all pretty tough, and any of them could win at any time.”
Said Spieth, “I don’t think there is [a rivalry]. Here and there, we get questions about rivalries. It’s always what has happened recently. Dustin has played better golf than anybody over the last two years. That’s why he’s No. 1 in the world.
“We have a great relationship. I texted him that night. I told him we had a great battle, and let’s do it again next week.”
If it happens again this week at TPC Boston, where they are paired together (tee times: http://bit.ly/2xvQI4H), no matter who wins, they might think about it just a little differently.
Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf