Golf Digest editors picks

Golf is just one big rivalry, when you think about it--a golfer battling his own demons, someone else's hot putter, a course built to befuddle. We compare swings, grasses and clubs, along with charges and chokes, wins and losses. Eras aren't off limits, either, whether they're lined with wool or sound like titanium. Not only are rivalries plain fun, they're downright necessary, providing a framework for conversation today and history down the road. We crave them and, when they do materialize--particularly on a Sunday afternoon when golf's big ring has been reduced to two corners throwing their best punches--we savor them.

-- Bill Fields

NICKLAUS VS. PALMER

1. NICKLAUS VS. PALMER

They were golf for a long time, and to many they still are.

Not too full of themselves in victory, always gracious in defeat, with swings you could remember and autographs you could read--Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus shared much besides a thirst to be the best.

But as they went at each other and after championships, it was their differences that fueled the journey and made it so much fun to be along for the ride.

Palmer had the hands of a blacksmith, Nicklaus those of an accountant, but his thighs were golf's sequoias. Palmer hit a searing draw then cocked his head to see where it went. Nicklaus cocked his head before launching a power fade. Palmer attacked a course, trying to shake the birdies out of it; Nicklaus dissected it, capitalizing on the mistakes of others. Palmer's aggressiveness courted the trouble Nicklaus' conservative strategy sought to avoid. Going for broke cost Palmer plenty, but he would have it no other way. Bold was as beautiful to Arnie as a green in regulation was to Jack.

Nicklaus, with his crouching open stance, putted better for a longer time than Palmer and his knock-kneed, pigeon-toed method, but both were effective--Palmer winning seven professional major championships among 62 PGA Tour titles, Nicklaus a record 18 majors and 73 victories.From 1958 through 1980, either Palmer or Nicklaus or both enjoyed a top-three finish in at least one major every year except 1969, a period in which Palmer had 36 top-10s in Grand Slam events, Nicklaus a whopping 59.

Their rivalry extended off the course to business, particularly golf course design. "I think Arnold and I are adversarial friends or friendly enemies," Nicklaus told Golf Digest's Jerry Tarde in 1991. "All our lives we've competed against each other. Arnold and I fight like the devil about stuff."

The back-and-forth may have been as lively as it was because it was rooted in respect. Palmer's army of fans wasn't always nice to Nicklaus when he arrived on the scene as a threat to the throne, but Palmer never chimed in. A decade older than his biggest rival, Palmer was generous with advice if Nicklaus wanted it, a largesse Nicklaus never forgot even while their spirited competition endured.
-- Bill Fields

2. U.S. VS. EUROPE

2. U.S. VS. EUROPE

If you could go back in time to, say, 1978 and tell a reader of this magazine that the second-best rivalry in the history of golf was the United States versus Europe in the Ryder Cup, he would have looked at you as though you had chewed too much balata for breakfast. That's how much the intensity of the U.S.-Europe battles have mushroomed in the last 30 years. In fact, in all of sports there may not be another rivalry that has transformed itself as dramatically as golf's biennial battle between teams of pro golfers representing America and Europe. For the first 50 years of its existence, the Ryder Cup--then a U.S. versus Great Britain & Ireland affair--was as one-sided as a New York Yankees-Utica Blue Sox World Series. Through 1977, the Americans held a 18-3-1 advantage. Then the Cup's organizers made the event-saving decision to expand the GB&I squad to include players from all of Europe. One addition in particular sparked a change: Seve Ballesteros. Anything but intimidated by the Americans, his spirit permeated the European team and inspired by him--and Tony Jacklin, who took over as captain in 1983--the Euros suddenly became the Americans' equals, and the Ryder Cup became the most spine-tingling event in golf. Three decades later, it still is.--Geoff Russell

3. SNEAD VS. HOGAN

3. SNEAD VS. HOGAN

The rivalry that defined modern golf began in 1938, when Ben Hogan got his first tour win two years after Sam Snead. For the next two decades Snead's straw hat and Hogan's white cap were the iconic symbols of golf. Snead won a record 82 times to 64 for Hogan, but Ben had nine majors to Sam's seven, including the career Grand Slam and four U.S. Open titles, where Snead was second four times, including to Hogan in 1953. For two decades, Snead asked: "What's the little man doing?" They knew if they beat the other they had a good chance of winning.--Ron Sirak

4. MICKELSON VS. WOODS

4. MICKELSON VS. WOODS

Think part of the reason Tiger Woods returned from his self-imposed sabbatical at the Masters was to protect his No. 1 spot on the World Ranking? Think Phil Mickelson really meant it when he said the possibility of moving atop the ranking at the Players was "the last thing on my mind"? There has never been love lost between the two best golfers of their generation, and there will be less to lose (and more for fans to love) if Lefty is No. 1 when Woods returns after working out his problems. This rivalry is only going to get better. --John Antonini

5. JONES VS. HAGEN

5. JONES VS. HAGEN

Walter Hagen's lopsided victory over Bobby Jones in an epic 1926 exhibition was big news, but they wrote a lot of headlines. Between 1914, when Hagen won his first U.S. Open, and 1930, when Jones won the Grand Slam, the consummate pro and unrivaled amateur ruled top-level golf, Jones winning 13 majors to Hagen's 11. One was from the north (Rochester, N.Y.), the other from the south (Atlanta). One was buoyant and outgoing, the other reserved. One was a pro, the other an amateur. But the similarities between them trumped the differences, and the commonality was greatness. --B.F.

6. NICKLAUS  VS. WATSON

6. NICKLAUS VS. WATSON

From 1977 through 1982 the title of "golf's best player" changed hands--and it wasn't a gentle handoff. Jack Nicklaus won three majors during that span, but Tom Watson won six (with Nicklaus runner-up five times). The "Duel in the Sun"--the 1977 British Open at Turnberry--set the standard for mano-a-mano golf. Then came the climax: the 1982 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach where Watson struck "The Chip," on the 71st hole. Nicklaus summed up that Open and their rivalry in a sentence: "That S.O.B. did it to me again." --E. Michael Johnson

7. WHITWORTH VS. WRIGHT

7. WHITWORTH VS. WRIGHT

Those who saw them both say Mickey Wright was the greatest player in the history of the women's game, a technical masterpiece, but that Kathy Whitworth was the greatest golfer, knowing how to get the ball in the hole faster than anyone else, a doggedness that resulted not only in a record 88 wins but also a remarkable 95 second-place finishes. Wright, who pretty much left the stage at the age of 34, won 82 times, second-best in LPGA history, and outdid Whitworth in the majors 13-6. From 1958 through 1973, either Wright or Whitworth led the LPGA in victories 13 times. --Ron Sirak

8. KARSTEN SOLHEIM VS. PGA TOUR/USGA

8. KARSTEN SOLHEIM VS. PGA TOUR/USGA

When Karsten Solheim sued the USGA and then the PGA Tour over their attempts to kill his Ping Eye 2 irons and their square grooves 20 years ago, the rules and the industry teetered in the balance. Although both suits were settled out of court, the real winners were Ping and square grooves. That was until the USGA reopened the debate in 2005 and eventually decided to roll back grooves to pre-Ping Eye 2 levels. Is the rancor done? Check the recently announced USGA rulemaking forum this fall, when the Solheim family might get in one last shot. --Mike Stachura

9. PINE VALLEY VS. AUGUSTA NATIONAL

Until 2009, this was more one-sided than Jack vs. Arnie or Tiger vs. Phil, with male bastion Pine Valley GC almost always the hands-down No. 1 course on Golf Digest's biennial ranking of America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses and equally male bastion Augusta National GC always trailing in second or third position. Pine Valley always led the league with sky high scores on such criteria as Shot Values and Resistance to Scoring, Augusta National edging it only in the Conditioning category. But last year, Augusta's numbers improved enough to take over the top spot on America's 100 Greatest, relegating Pine Valley to second-best. The folks in New Jersey aren't likely worried. Pine Valley was toppled once before, by Pebble Beach in 2001, but it regained its supremacy in the very next survey. Pebble has since slipped to sixth place. Enjoy the view, Augusta National. It might change in 2011. --Ron Whitten

10. 1953 VS. 2000

10. 1953 VS. 2000

It is a measure of not only the man's brilliance but also his mystique that a year in which Ben Hogan competed in only six times can be considered one of the greatest seasons in history. Hogan won five times including three majors by a combined 15 strokes in what was his last great campaign. Forty-seven years later, Tiger Woods was just as remarkable, winning nine times in 20 starts, including two majors by a total of 23 strokes and a third in a playoff. They remain the only two men to win three professional majors in a single season. --R.S.

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