A rivalry, but only to an extent

April 21, 2009

A good rivalry usually requires a degree of aversion between the rival parties (Ali-Frazier, Yankees-Red Sox) that ratchets up the intensity. So we hope, anyway. Venus and Serena Williams may be rivals, but they also are sisters. Sans aversion, what's the purpose?

Much has been made of the Tiger Woods-Phil Mickelson rivalry and the notion that they revile one another, and it came to the fore in the final round of the Masters, when they stood toe-to-toe, trading punches, at least until neither was standing at the end.

Ever since Woods began his dominant run, golf has been looking for a suitable rival and has identified one in Mickelson, ostensibly on the basis of little more than the animus they are said to have for one another.

Well it says here that as rivalries go, it isn't much of one, and that whatever animus there is largely travels in only one direction, toward Mickelson.

On the latter point, this need not reflect poorly on Woods. A ruthless competitor, Woods has always held those who pose a threat to his dominance in a lesser regard. When your goal is to get an opponent down and step on his neck, isn't it helpful to dislike him?

I'm not alone in this assessment, incidentally. Golf Digest and Golf World European correspondent John Huggan wrote in Scotland on Sunday, "there is little love lost. Nor can there ever be, as long as the precious Woods feels even remotely threatened by Mickelson. The loss and the problem, one feels, are Tiger's."

As for the rivalry, Woods has won 14 major championships in 47 career starts as a professional. Mickelson has won three in 63 starts as a pro. That's less a rivalry than it is a rout.

Rivalries require butting heads (though not head butts, not in a game whose rules begin with a section on etiquette, at any rate). Golf doesn't lend itself to any two players routinely squaring off in the final round of any tournament, much less a major. Mickelson is so entertainingly erratic that any expectation of them vying for the same title week in and week out (never mind winding up in the same group on Sunday) qualifies as wishful thinking.

Sunday at Augusta was an aberration. It was entertaining, surely, but that's all it was, and the fact that they did not hug one another afterward can't fuel a rivalry that exists largely in the abstract.