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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 March, 2005, 08:52 GMT 09:52 UK
Fab Four trump Old Man Par
By Matt Slater
Golf editor

Professional golf, like ice fishing, long-distance swimming and Ellen MacArthur's sailing trips, can be a lonely game.

Greg Norman agonises as his victory hopes fade at the Masters in 1996
Norman let the course and Faldo destroy his Masters hopes in 1996
Yes, you've got somebody to carry your clubs, spectators to smile/glare at, and playing partners to either ignore or engage in small talk, but ultimately you're on your own.

Because unlike almost every other sport, you're not actually playing another person. You're playing that immutable constant, the course.

Even match play, the closest golf gets to hand-to-hand combat, is essentially one person playing the course against another person playing course.

It's what Bobby Jones called the battle against "Old Man Par".

But this struggle against an abstract concept isn't enough. We want winners, not scoring machines. And for somebody to win, somebody else has to lose.

Would Ahab's pursuit of Moby Dick be so memorable if the "white whale" had not turned around and smashed the Pequod to pieces?

Gary Player, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus
Player, Palmer and Nicklaus rekindle those competitive fires
Would Jack Nicklaus' pursuit of majors be so heroic if it was not achieved in the face of opposition from at first Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, and then Lee Trevino and Tom Watson?

Nobody remembers Nicklaus' stroke average, but every fan knows the American won 18 majors - twice as many as Player, 10 more than Watson and 11 more than the man he caught and then left for dust, Palmer.

Likewise, the recent dogfight at Doral didn't delight the fans and TV executives because it resulted in a new course record.

We loved it because Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson went eyeball-to-eyeball, and Lefty blinked first.

Rivalries like these enrich golf. They provide context.

You cannot "beat" a golf course - even if you shoot a 59 you are bound to be annoyed about the 18ft birdie putt you shaved the hole with on the 12th.

But you can become the best of a bunch. And the better the bunch, the greater the achievement.

Harry Vardon's legend burns bright because he shaded the two other members of the Great Triumvirate, John Henry Taylor and James Braid.

Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus at Turnberry in 1977
"The Duel in the Sun": The climax of the Watson v Nicklaus tussle
Without them, Vardon's feats might rank only with Peter Thomson's. The Australian won five Open titles, but he did so in less competitive, and therefore less memorable, times.

After the Great Triumvirate, the baton was passed in the 1920s to the Americans Walter Hagen, Jones and Gene Sarazen.

And from them it was handed to the next Big Three - Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead.

All born in 1912, the battles between this trio defined the middle years of the century, with the key contest coming when Nelson met Hogan in a play-off at the 1942 Masters.

Nelson won that day, and Snead won more Tour titles than both of them, but Hogan is considered to be the better player.

That is the beauty of a great rivalry - even defeats can be glorious if they come at the hands of a worthy foe.

It is for this reason that Palmer's legend is not diminished by his play-off loss to the upstart Nicklaus at the 1962 US Open. And Nicklaus' reputation loses no lustre because he finished second to Watson in the "Duel in the Sun" at the 1977 Open.

As much as all these men said they were "just playing the course", nobody believed them.

Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson at Doral
Woods and Mickelson: Golf's answer to Duran Duran versus Wham
Does anybody really think Greg Norman was just playing "Old Man Par" when Nick Faldo shouldered past him at the 1996 Masters?

Which brings us nicely to the current state of affairs.

After years of excellence in isolation, Woods finally has a benchmark, other than par, to which he can compare himself.

That the new rivalry is a gang of four with Woods, Mickelson, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh, instead of a simple head-to-head or big three, only adds to the excitement.

Woods and golf have needed this for some time. Now, on the evidence of the first three months of 2005, we're going to get genuine rivalry in spades.

With little to split them in the rankings, earnings or stats, let us all celebrate the fact that the race to be this generation's best golfer is going to be a less lonely pursuit than it once was.





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