10 Greatest Rivalries In Golf History

By Matt Cohen

Rivalries are part of what make sports great. In golf, rivalries are a necessity, and when they materialize on a Sunday afternoon at a Major Championship, there isn’t a more magical moment in sports. In compiling a look at the 10 best throughout golf history, no era, player, or moment has been left unturned.

10. Mickey Wright vs. Kathy Whitworth

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Mickey Wright and Kathy Whitworth created the first great women’s golf rivalry. Those who saw Whitworth play claim that she was the greatest golfer, displaying talent that resulted not only in a record 88 wins but also a remarkable 95 second-place finishes. Wright, who was pretty much out of golf by her mid-thirties, won 82 times (second-best in LPGA history) and out-dueled Whitworth 13-6 in the Majors. From 1958 through 1973, these two rivals led the LPGA in victories 13 times. Not too shabby ladies.

9. Karsten Solheim vs. PGA Tour/USGA

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Now this was interesting. When Karsten Solheim, the founder of PING, sued the USGA and then the PGA Tour over their attempts to kill his Ping Eye 2 irons and their square grooves in the late 1980’s, the industry was on edge. Both suits were eventually settled out of court, and PING and the square grooves appeared to have won. That was until the USGA reopened the debate in 2005 and eventually decided to roll back grooves to pre-Ping Eye 2 levels. In 2010, PING Chairman and CEO John Solheim announced that PING would waive its rights that prevent the PGA TOUR from prohibiting the use of pre-April 1990 PING EYE2 irons and wedges that do not meet the 2010 Condition of Competition from being played at PGA TOUR professional competitions.

8. Martha Burk vs. Augusta National Golf Club

Remember the stir that Martha Burk made back in 2002? The former Chair of the National Council of Women’s Organizations protested Augusta National’s stance on allowing women members to their club. Burk characterized the club as sexist and out of touch. William “Hootie” Johnson, then the Chairman of Augusta National, maintained the issue had to due with the rights of any club. Burk and her organization then famously led a Masters week demonstration against the club, which only drew a few dozen protesters. Although Burk appeared to have lost the battle, she may have won the war. Augusta extended membership to two women for the first time in history in August 2012.

7. The United States vs. Europe

Named after English businessman Samuel Ryder, the Ryder Cup is a biennial men’s golf competition between teams from Europe and the United States. The competition is contested every two years with the venue alternating between courses in the USA and Europe. Established in 1927, the match play format has created some of the greatest moments and rivalries in golfing history. Since 1979, Europe has won ten times outright and retained the Cup once in a tied match, with seven American wins over this period.

6. Gene Sarazen vs. Walter Hagen

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Perhaps golf’s first true rivalry, Gene Sarazen and Walter Hagen were both titans of the game during the roaring twenties. In October 1922, Hagen, the reigning British Open champ, had skipped the PGA (ducking Sarazen, some said), which Sarazen had won. Sarazen, then only 20, had also won the ’22 U.S. Open. This was for No. 1 — and respect. As Sarazen said of Hagen: “I didn’t like the way he kept calling me ‘kid.’ I was a champion and I wanted Hagen to respect me as a champion.” The kid won 3 and 2.

5. Jack Nicklaus vs. Tom Watson

This rivalry was fun, and one filled with mutual respect and admiration for the other. From 1977 through 1982, Jack Nicklaus won three Majors, 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 the rivalry, with Watson winning on the final hole. Then at the 1982 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, Watson struck “The Chip,” on the 71st hole. Nicklaus summed up that Open and their rivalry with this: “That S.O.B. did it to me again.” It was a great rivalry, and important for the sport after Jack’s previous rivals, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, were no longer on the scene.

4. Bobby Jones vs. Walter Hagen

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Walter Hagen finds himself on this list once more, only this time against Bobby Jones, the founder of The Masters Tournament. Perhaps the greatest amateur in golf history (winning five U.S Amateur titles), Jones won the first Grand Slam in golf history in 1930. Hagen won his first U.S. Open in 1914, and between 1914 and 1930, Jones won 13 majors to Hagen’s 11. The climax of the rivalry came in 1926, when Jones, who was still an amateur at the time, lost a lopsided victory to Hagen in what was called, “The Match of the Century.”

3. Sam Snead vs. Ben Hogan

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Before Arnie vs. Jack there was Snead vs. Hogan. Snead, the Virginia native, won his first professional tournament in 1936. Hogan, born less than three months after Snead, won his first event in 1938. For the next two decades Snead’s straw hat and Hogan’s white cap battled for seemingly every Major championship. “Slammin Sammie” won a record 82 times on tour 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 time), including to Hogan in 1953. “The three things I fear most in golf,” Snead once said, “are lightning, Ben Hogan and a downhill putt.”

2. Phil Mickelson vs. Tiger Woods

Tiger Woods had 8 Major Championships before Phil Mickelson finally captured his first. In fact, Tiger already had three green jackets before Phil’s triumphant victory at the 2004 Masters. But for nearly the last 20 years, the Tiger vs. Phil rivalry has elevated golf to new heights. While they aren’t bitter enemies, they aren’t the best of pals either. Once upon a time Tiger looked like a lock to pass Jack’s record of 18 Majors. Once upon a time it also looked like Phil would never even win one. How quickly that narrative has changed. Both are two of the best to ever step on a golf course, and if we’re lucky, we’ll see one more Tiger/Phil pairing on a Sunday at a Major.

1. Arnold Palmer vs. Jack Nicklaus

These two couldn’t have had more different backgrounds. Palmer grew up poor in rural Pennsylvania, and served three years in the United States Coast Guard during the mid 1950’s. Nicklaus meanwhile, was a country club kid, who came from an upper-middle class family in Ohio. Palmer burst on the scene first, and was golf’s first superstar of the sport’s television age, which began in the 1950s.

Palmer, nicknamed “The King,” had five Majors already and was the prohibitive favorite prior to the 1962 U.S. Open. But at Oakmont Country Club, a chubby-cheeked 22 year old named Jack Nicklaus fresh out of Ohio State had different plans. While the galleries were more vocal for Palmer, who had grown up in the area, it was Nicklaus who won by three strokes in a playoff, thus birthing the greatest rivalry in golf.

Palmer ended his career with seven Major Championships among 62 PGA Tour titles. Nicklaus won 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.

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.”

Honorable Mentions: Greg Norman vs. Nick Faldo, Pebble Beach vs. Augusta National, Lee Trevino vs. Jack Nicklaus, Paul Azinger vs. Seve Ballesteros, and Happy Gilmore vs. Shooter McGavin.