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Tiger misses what Arnie, Nicklaus had: Rivals

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

The other day reporters asked Geoff Ogilvy, an Australian golfer, for some gambling advice.

Some bookies are offering the following Masters bet: even money on Tiger Woods vs. the field, a dual testament to Woods' genius and everyone else's weakness.

"It's not far off the mark," Ogilvy said. "But I'd probably take even money on the field. I'd rather have 90 guys playing against Tiger."

Ogilvy's assessment actually made headlines around the world – and mostly because it seemed like he was expressing doubt about Tiger. It was a comical reaction considering even money on one player vs. the field is an almost absurd proposition. The field should always be favored.

Then again, who's ready to risk real money that Tiger won't be slipping on a green jacket Sunday?

This is what the PGA Tour has gotten to, Tiger Woods and everyone else. He comes into Augusta, the major that suits him best, having won nine of his last 11 tournaments. The buzz isn't just about him winning this week, but starting a grand slam run.

While Tiger doesn't win every major – he didn't win the Masters last year – the lack of an identifiable competitor for him has turned golf into something like the early days of watching Mike Tyson. You tune in to watch total domination, not real competition.

Woods' accomplishments are by no means diminished, but the anticipation for fans is. Tiger has no true rival, no one familiar face just as cold-blooded, talented and intelligent to push him to perhaps even greater heights.

"Rivalries are the life-blood of sports," said Ian O'Connor, the author of the new book on one of golf's greatest rivalries, "Arnie & Jack: Palmer, Nicklaus and Golf's Greatest Rivarly."

"Whether it's Michigan-Ohio State, Yankees-Red Sox, Ali-Frazier, it's what makes sports great. That's what Palmer and Nicklaus had. And what Tiger Woods lacks."

O'Connor's book is a finely written, intricately researched and smartly reported look at the rivalry that catapulted golf into major sports status in the United States. It doesn't just tell you about a bygone era, but it seems to take you down each fairway and into each clubhouse where the two battled with varying animosity.

In turn it details both the great similarities and vast differences between these two champions, the ruffled but loveable Palmer and the consistent, unflappable Nicklaus.

"Arnie was reckless, he gambled, his swing looked like your swing or my swing," O'Connor said. "He was the anti-Jack."

The two would have been great in any era – Palmer, 10 years Nicklaus' elder was a huge star first – but seemed to raise their games and the fans' interest during the stretch from 1960-1973 when they were week in, week out competitors. The fact that their back and forth played out just as television entered nearly every American's home was sublime timing.

"Arnold made my dad and my dad made Arnold," Jack Nicklaus Jr. said in the book.

The tour was filled with a number of champions then, one reason Nicklaus finished second in 19 majors to go with his 18 titles. On numerous occasions, he had majors all but stolen from him on incredible shots from fellow legends.

Back in that era, it wasn't just Nicklaus who piled up the majors. Lee Trevino won six, Palmer seven, Tom Watson eight and Gary Player nine. In Woods' era, no other player has won more than three majors.

The players the media have pumped up as possible rivals – Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, etc. – have lacked staying power. Mickelson made the only true challenge of Woods back in 2005-06, when Tiger was dealing with his father's illness and eventual death. But Phil hasn't posed much of a threat since blowing the 2006 U.S. Open to Ogilvy.

The players who have challenged Woods in majors, the ones who have stood toe-to-toe with him in heart-racing play have mostly been anonymous guys with nothing to lose such as Bob May, Angel Cabrera or last year's Masters champion, Zach Johnson.

Woods remains one of the most thrilling athletes in the world to watch, but wouldn't it be even more thrilling if he had a real rival?

Perhaps he has none because he is just so much better than Nicklaus was. If Woods isn't already considered the greatest of all-time, he likely will be when he surpasses Nicklaus' record for major victories.

While the pool of very good players is greater now than a generation ago, the number of stone cold champions capable of challenging for every major is far shallower.

When O'Connor asked Nicklaus if he wished Woods had to deal with similar competition he didn't get much of an answer, although Jack's wife sat in the background nodding her head.

So what would have happened had Woods' prime corresponded with Arnie's or even Jack's? The Golden Bear wasn't backing down.

"I'd get my share of wins," Nicklaus said in the book, "and he'd win his share."

If only there was someone on the tour now with the ability and courage to say the same thing.

We'd still get to watch Tiger's brilliance, but without having to hope for someone to come out of the field to at least make him and the bookies sweat a little.