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Dustin Johnson vs. Jon Rahm: It’s a rivalry that won’t last

Dustin Johnson defeats Jon Rahm in 2017 WGC Dell Match Play final
Dustin Johnson (right) prevails over Jon Rahm in the 2017 WGC Dell Match Play final, but Rahm pulls a stunner on Sunday at the BMW Championship. Is that the stuff of a budding rivalry? Probably not, writes Gary Van Sickle.

Don’t get your hopes up that Dustin Johnson and Jon Rahm, who rank 1-2 in the world and will be paired in the Tour Championship, can offer a long-term encore to the thrilling theater in Chicago

It was a Clash of the Titans. It was No. 1 vs. No. 2. It was a potential Ryder Cup preview.

Yes, the BMW Championship finish had everything a golf viewer could ask for, other than Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson or whichever Kardashian sister is currently in favor.

Dustin Johnson made a 43-foot putt on the 72nd hole to get into a playoff with Spain’s Jon Rahm, who then sank an unlikely 66-foot bomb to win on the first extra hole at Olympia Fields. This could be the start of a great rivalry, right?

We should be so lucky. At 36, Johnson has plenty of world-class golf left. At 25, Rahm already might be Europe’s best player. They will have no shortage of opportunities to duke it out again, starting Friday, when they will be paired together in the final two-ball in the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta (tee times).

Fans and writers have yearned for a golf rivalry for years. Well, here’s the bad news: Kanye West will run for president before we get another great golf rivalry. What? Really? Oh. Cancel that previous sentence.

You get the point. Rivalries are rare. Woods and Mickelson were contemporaries and rivals for more than two decades. Their major-championship scoreboard reads, Woods 15, Mickelson 5. Yet the two best players of their generation never had a “Duel in the Sun” moment in a major.

Mickelson was runner-up to Woods in the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, but they weren’t paired together in the final round, and Mickelson never was a threat to win.

Yes, they had a few other notable showdowns. One came at Torrey Pines in 2000, when Mickelson stopped Woods’ winning streak at six tournaments in row. Another happened in 2012 at Pebble Beach, where Mickelson shot a closing 64 to win. And there was their finest thriller, in 2000 at Doral, where Woods won after making a clutch 30-footer at the 17th, accompanied by a classic fist pump, before Mickelson narrowly missed chipping in to tie at 18.

The best Tiger-Phil rivalry moment remains when they were on the first tee at the 2002 Tour Championship in Atlanta and the starter introduced Woods by going into his lengthy list of victories. Mickelson interrupted her, saying, “All right, all right,” and everyone broke into laughter, including Woods.

Score a point for Phil.

Even if this weekend’s Tour Championship/FedEx Cup finale turns into another Johnson-Rahm duel, it never will reach those heights. A rematch would be an ideal scenario for viewers because these two are the hottest golfers on the planet. Johnson’s past three finishes are second, first and second. Rahm, who briefly held the No. 1 world ranking, won two of his past five starts.

The reason why golf doesn’t have more rivalries is because they have to be born on a big stage – the major championships, primarily – and the same players have to be in the mix and go against each other repeatedly. Johnson vs. Rahm is a one-off, even if it was a one-off with a sensational finish.

Rivalries are rare birds. Before Tiger-Phil, we had Nick Faldo against The World. Before that, we had Jack Nicklaus versus Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller, Gary Player and Arnold Palmer. Nicklaus won 18 majors and was a runner-up 19 times. That’s 37 opportunities to develop rivalries.

In today’s pro game, nobody is prolific enough to have that chance.

Leaving out Mickelson, who may or may not be done contending at age 50, and the players who still are competitive on the PGA Tour with the most major titles are Brooks Koepka (4), Rory McIlroy (4) and Jordan Spieth (3). Bubba Watson, Zach Johnson and Martin Kaymer have two apiece. Three-time winner Padraig Harrington hasn’t contended in anything for years.

The pickings in our Rivalry Cupboard look slimmer than Portland’s chances of being named 2020’s “Most Livable City.” Here’s a look at what’s available:

Koepka versus Woods could be a thing. Woods made a dramatic run at Koepka in the 2018 PGA Championship at Bellerive, but Koepka held him off with clutch shots. When Woods won the 2019 Masters, Koepka tied for runner-up after a rogue wind gust swatted his tee shot into Rae’s Creek at Augusta National's 12th hole during the final round, a shot that Koepka swears he struck well. Who’s going to argue with him?

You also might recall the 2019 PGA Championship at Bethpage Black, where Koepka and Woods were paired in the opening round. Koepka shot a record-tying 63 and stepped all over Woods, beating him by nine shots and clearly trying to send a message. If Koepka gets past his knee problems and Woods can keep his fused back operational, they could be A Thing. They’ve got a history. Koepka not only isn’t afraid of Woods, but he seems to relish the challenge. If only he’d arrived 20 years sooner.

Koepka versus Johnson has potential. At last year’s PGA Championship, Koepka held off a spirited final-round charge by Johnson. When Johnson held the third-round lead at last month’s PGA Championship at Harding Park, Koepka said he felt confident about his chances because he’s come through in similar situations four times and Johnson had done it only once – ouch – and that he and Johnson never really were close friends. The media invented that, he said. Well, Johnson didn’t win – Collin Morikawa did – but Johnson was in the hunt until the end, after Koepka flamed out early.

It wasn’t coincidence that after Koepka’s insult, Johnson bounced back two weeks later in his next start to shoot 30 under par and make a statement with an 11-stroke victory at the Northern Trust. Were you watching, Brooks?

A rivalry blossomed between Koepka and McIlroy last year but soon faded into the background. They went head-to-head in the final pairing twice in a month. Koepka dropped a closing 65 on McIlroy, who shot 71, to come from one back to win the FedEx St. Jude Invitational. They played in the final twosome at the Tour Championship a month later, when McIlroy shot 66, the day’s low score, and Koepka managed only a 72 and tied for third.

This rivalry looks good, but only if Koepka gets his troublesome left knee right and McIlroy, an expectant father, regains his edge. McIlroy is one of only three players in the modern era to win four majors by the age of 25 (with Nicklaus and Woods), but he hasn’t won one since 2014. If McIlroy is done at 31 – and that seems unthinkable – this rivalry is done, too.

It’s hard to believe that five years has passed since Spieth won the 2015 Masters and U.S. Open, then ran into Jason Day in the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. Day posted a record 20-under score and did more than just outplay Spieth; he demoralized him with massive drives.

Day hammered home his excellence at the BMW Championship. Spieth was paired with Day for the first two rounds, shot 65-66 and trailed Day by seven. Day shot 61-63 and was 18 under. Playing with Day during that hot stretch had to be intimidating. Spieth tinkered with his swing to pick up distance that offseason and, coincidentally, hasn’t been the same player since.

It was a fun little rivalry while it lasted. Day has back issues; Spieth has swing issues. A reunion tour doesn’t seem likely.

So, we’re back to Johnson vs. Rahm. They’re on the tee Friday at East Lake. Enjoy the show and their potential budding rivalry.

History suggests, however, that this won’t be the start of something big.

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