Hamilton: Woods, McIlroy - rivalry to savour

PHIL HAMILTON
Last updated 05:00 09/04/2013
Tiger Woods
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COMING RIGHT: Tiger Woods' form seems to be peaking just in time for the Masters at Augusta.

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OPINION: Without rivalries sport becomes a meal without spice, it lacks flavour to go with the substance.

The most memorable contests feature bitter rivals, whether it be rugby, cricket, basketball or golf. Twenty-eight years on, my strongest sporting memory is still of those dastardly Aucklanders taking the Ranfurly Shield off Canterbury in the 1985 thriller.

Golf's major season begins this week with the Masters and holds out the hope that the final day will feature newly-minted world No 1 Tiger Woods going head to head with the man he supplanted, Rory McIlroy.

The stage is set for golf's two best players to put on a show in a rivalry that could be the second coming of Arnie versus Jack. A rehabilitated Woods appears back to his best while McIlroy is swinging better after an uninspiring start to the season.

Golf's greatest rivalry remains the one between Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. It was Palmer who caught the public's imagination, giving golf the jolt of glamour and attention it needed. Then along came Nicklaus who took the unofficial title of world's best player from Palmer on his way to winning 18 majors.

Woods and McIlroy clearly have the talent and charisma of their forerunners. But the similarities run closer than that.

Nicklaus overpowered courses when he came on the scene, driving it further than his competitors. He had a meticulous approach, being one of the first to map out yardages and plot his way around a course. He was a grinder with the game of a superstar.

Palmer was the great swashbuckler. He always played aggressively and threw away the odd major because of that. Golf wasn't his entire life and he seemed the better for it.

So one seemed far happier but won less than his more intense single-minded opponent. Ring any bells?

It seems like Woods has made some sort of Faustian pact where in return for being selfish and obnoxious with little life outside golf, he can challenge for Nicklaus' record. But McIlroy is different. He signs all the autographs that Tiger ignores. He is a likeable character who wants to be liked.

Tiger simply doesn't care about that. The record is what matters. As Nike's recent ad claimed "Winning takes care of everything". Woods once told Sean O'Hair that he needed to drink more "jerk juice". It's the sort of advice he could also give to McIlroy.

Surely it's no coincidence that the only two men who have appeared truly comfortable holding the top spot in the official world golf rankings have been Woods and Greg Norman, another golfer who did it his own way. All the others - such as Fred Couples, David Duval and Luke Donald - have been uncomfortable with the attention and demands and consequently their reigns have been relatively short-lived.

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But while McIlroy gives the impression it doesn't matter to him quite as much as it does to Woods, the way he has bounced back from disappointments - at the Masters two years ago and then his withdrawal just weeks ago - shows there is a lot more steel to him than meets the eye. Perhaps he will surprise us all.

When comparing the records of Nicklaus and Woods, old-timers cite the long list of the game's greats - Palmer, Lee Trevino, Billy Casper, Tom Watson, Johnny Miller and Raymond Floyd - Jack had to beat. But none of Woods' contemporaries have ever similarly taken the battle to him on the final day of majors (excepting YE Yang's one-off upset at the PGA).

Tiger's career has had plenty. Three US amateurs, 14 majors, 77 PGA titles, scandals, injuries. The only thing missing has been a legitimate rival. Here's hoping he's finally found one.

- The Press

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