After a captivating 36-hole head-to-head golf at the 1977 Open Championship, where Tom Watson played the final two rounds at Turnberry 65-65 to defeat Jack Nicklaus with one stroke, the desire for future drama between the rising star and the enduring legends were quickly pronounced.
“It’s a golf version of a barroom fight,” wrote the Associated Press’ Will Grimsley of Scotland. “It should well develop into one of the classic sports rivalries of the century. It could be Rocky Graziano and Tony Zale again, Muhammad Ali against Joe Frazier, the Yankees and Dodgers in a revival of the 1950s baseball fights. “
Grimsley can be forgiven for his tense writing in the wake of “Duel in the Sun,” as the Watson-Nicklaus showdown in 77 became known. Imagine the Secretariat sprinting towards the end of 1973 Belmont Stakes, but with another horse next to him that he could not shake. Nicklaus finished in second place with one stroke, but was 10 shots from third place Hubert Green. In the same country where the earliest professionals made their mark by playing cash games against each other during the 19th century, Watson and Nicklaus had in an Open in the late 20th century closed opportunities for everyone else, making medal play a de facto match.
“Whatever else Tom Watson would do in golf – and he would do much more – history had embraced him now,” Frank Deford wrote in Sports Illustrated almost a decade later, “for he had beaten the best at his best, best at best.”
Epic. Rare. Epic because such fights are rare.
Grimsley, who for decades went from stadium to stadium to call as a sports writer covering enemies who knew each other and those who watched, did not get his wish because rivalry is golf’s mostly unfulfilled wish, more mirage than reality. Watson and Nicklaus went nowhere over the next five summers, but Turnberry remained a unique plot. At the 1982 US Open at Pebble Beach, Watson broke through in the national championship while breaking Nicklaus’ heart with a 71-hole chip-in. Unlike Turnberry, however, Nicklaus was already off the stage after completing his round when the man who displaced him as No. 1 in the game performed the amazing shot from deep grass as it usually does in golf.
From the 1977 Masters through the 1982 US Open, a span of 22 major championships, starting with Watson’s narrow victory over Nicklaus at Augusta National and ending with the same result at Pebble Beach, Watson accumulated five majors and had five additional top-five finishes; Nicklaus won three majors and had nine top-five. Every player was very much in conflict as it meant something in the handful of years, a crucial ingredient in promoting a legitimate golf rivalry. And even then, despite their presence on the rankings, 20 majors were played before an event was again compressed into something resembling a title fight.
This week’s match between Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka in Las Vegas – a televised meeting between two current stars whose competitive tension has largely existed outside the ropes on social media – takes place in the context of this golf story. Golf fans yearn for, enjoy and hyper rivalry because the dynamics provide compelling competition and, to Grimsley’s point, golf helps to look like other sports, as rivalry is part of a regular diet, and not just a delicious treat.
The remarkable rivalries in men’s golf have tended to develop when players win on roughly the same clip at the same time – in three eras, three players, not two, were involved. This was certainly true of the “Great Triumvirate” shortly before and after the beginning of the 20th century. Harry Vardon of the Isle of Jersey, Scot James Braid and Englishman JH Taylor achieved remarkable success in The Open Championship. From 1894 to 1914, Vardon won six times with Braid and Taylor claiming five titles each. The five years in the period when one of the three did not win the Claret Jug became one or more members of the second trio.
Throughout the 1920s, the dominant American amateur Bobby Jones and the leading American professional Walter Hagen each filled newspaper sports sections with their exploits. Due to their different stations in golf – amateur and pro – head-to-head play was limited.
Hagen won his two US Opens (1914, 1919) before Jones played in his first. In two of Jones’ three victories in the Open Championship (1927, 1930), Hagen was not in the field; Jones did not participate in two of Hagen’s Open victories (1928, 1929). The chin was not a factor the four times Jones won the US Open. The organizers created a “Battle of the Century” 72-hole battle between the two headline creators in early 1926, but it buzzed when Hagen conducted Jones, 12, and 11. That season’s theater came in The Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. Jones, with the clubhouse at the helm, watched as Hagen, who was two strokes behind, played the final hole. Hagen, who has ever been a showman, wound up the mashie approach he had to take to force an endgame. After getting back to his ball with the expectation building, he landed his shot within inches of the cup before seeing it slip over the putting surface. His chance of victory had disappeared, Hagen took four to come down and came in third place, four behind Jones.
The triumvirate of great American golfers born in 1912 – Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead – began fighting in the mid-1930s. Nelson withdrew from full-time competition after the 1946 season, but Hogan and Snead remained on stage much longer. Snead defeated Hogan in a playoff at the 1954 Masters in their last head-to-head competition by a major. Their many victories — Snead, 82 TOUR victories including seven majors; Hogan, 64 victories, nine of them majors; Nelson, five majors among 52 titles – kept them in the golf consciousness for a long time.
It was very much the same for “The Big Three”, the modern game’s incarnation of a dominant group of three rivals. As with Hogan, Nelson and Snead, Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player often won, and when it mattered most, they built a wealth of memories for themselves and those who watched.
Despite deeper competition compared to previous eras, during a 21-year period that started with the first professional major title won by Palmer at the Masters victory in 1958 and run through 1978, Nicklaus, Player and Palms together for 31 victories in the 84 fought majors. Seventeen extra times, one or more of The Big Three finished in second place in a major, giving them first or second in a major 57 percent of the time. Still, head-to-head duels were rare.
Nicklaus defeated Palmer in a playoff game at the 1962 US Open in Oakmont, a triumph that signaled that he was an imminent threat to Palmer’s reign. They were paired together over the last 36 holes at the 1967 US Open at Baltusrol, Nicklaus once again got the best of Palmer. It took another 5½ years before they played together in a final round with everything at stake. At the Bob Hope Desert Classic in 1973, Palmer played Nicklaus to win his 62nd and what turned out to be the final PGA TOUR victory.
At the time, Nicklaus was well on his way to a legitimate rivalry with another man who would become a Hall of Famer. From 1968 to 1974, Lee Trevino matched Nicklaus’ five major victories, with Trevino challenging closely in two of them (T-3, 1970 Open Championship, T-4, 1972 US Open). But what defined this rivalry beyond the distinctive styles of the two golfers was that Trevino had to defeat Nicklaus, who finished second four times after him during this period: the 1968 US Open; 1971 US Open in a playoff; 1972 Open, where Nicklaus went for his third major title in a row; 1974 PGA Championship. (Although Nicklaus was five strokes behind, Nicklaus was also T-5 at Trevino’s 1971 Open Championship victory.)
In the quarter-century that Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have been on TOUR together, fans have longed for more head-to-head confrontations. As with headliners from previous generations, however, such occasions have been relatively rare. Mickelson was paired with Woods in the fourth round of the 2001 Masters with “Tiger Slam,” four major wins in a row, in the balance. Woods outscored Mickelson, 68-70, to take over David Duval with two, with Mickelson finishing in third, three shots left.
The two legends have not been in a major pair in the final round since the monumental day Tiger wrote history, but they have played together seven times in the final rounds on TOUR. Woods (2003 Buick Invitational, 2005 Ford Championship at Doral) and Mickelson (2007 Deutsche Bank Championship, 2012 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am) each won twice.
DeChambeau and Koepka have a way to go before approaching that kind of plot. So far, they have inhabited the same group in just four rounds over three tournaments, once during a final round. At the 2016 Masters, each closed with 72 to draw to 21st place.
As always, it has been easier to predict what might happen than to witness what happens.