Golf, by its nature, lacks real rivalries

November, 1, 2009
11/01/09
7:21
AM ET

In recent years, American sports fans have witnessed a golden age of tete a tetes, from resurgent rivalries (Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers) to repeated rivalries (New York Yankees versus Boston Red Sox) to rejuvenated rivalries (new purple passer Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings against his former mates the Green Bay Packers).

Noticeably absent from this list is anything from the world of professional golf. Makes sense, though. The truth is, there have been very few rivalries in the game's history ... and not a single one exists right now.

Anthony Kim

Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Anthony Kim added fuel to the fire on Saturday at the World Match Play Championship by not conceeding any putts to opponent Robert Allenby.

Call it the nature of the beast. Unlike the aforementioned team sports or direct one-on-one competitions -- say, boxing or tennis -- in which contestants square off against each other, golf includes so many elite pros at the highest level that it's difficult to find any sort of continuity in conflicts at the top of the leaderboard.

Chalk this up to three reasons: Deeper fields, in which seemingly every player has a chance to contend on any given week; very few match play tournaments on the annual schedule, relegating the number of head-to-head instances; and gentlemanly players, many of whom would rather call a penalty against themselves than cause a mini-firestorm by pointing out the faux pas of a playing partner.

One could call the Jack Nicklaus/Tom Watson encounters of a generation ago the last true rivalry in the game and hardly receive argument from a 19th hole filled with historians. (Greg Norman/Nick Faldo may also serve as an acceptable response, though even their duels date back more than a decade.)

Tiger Woods? His fiercest battles in major championships have come only in singular displays and from the likes of Bob May, Rocco Mediate and Y.E. Yang, not Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh and Ernie Els. If someone wants to refer to the latter group as rivals, then surely it would be of the hammer-and-nail variety -- or, if a more visual image is preferred, the dog-and-fire hydrant brand.

Let's not be so na´ve as to believe that Anthony Kim and Robert Allenby can fill that longtime void. The former is a 24-year-old up-and-comer from California with two PGA Tour victories on his ever-growing resume; the latter is 38, from Melbourne, Australia, and perhaps best known for winning the Aussie Triple Crown four years ago, though he's failed to find a winner's circle in the U.S. since 2001.

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It was due to this lack of any rivalry in golf, though, that so much excitement unfurled in regard to Saturday's semifinal match between the two players at the World Match Play Championship in Casares, Spain. Just three weeks earlier, they had squared off in a singles match at the Presidents Cup, with the rambunctious youngster picking off the veteran, 5 and 3.

As you're no doubt well aware by now, Allenby punctuated the proceedings by contending that his opponent didn't return to his hotel until 4 a.m. the night before -- a claim Kim steadfastly refuted. Each followed by issuing a press release soon afterward, in essence saying there was no ill will, it was water under the bridge and they would let bygones be bygones.

Nothing like adding fuel to a rivalry by throwing a few wet blankets on the fire, eh?

Turns out, the talk was just that, as Kim's actions in the rematch purported a man still miffed at those accusations. After 18 holes of the 36-hole match, Allenby said, "I was definitely surprised at not being given a few putts out there. I gave him a couple of four-footers."

In golf's ambient culture, such allegations could be construed as crass and disrespectful. And, yes, could even stoke the flames of -- dare we say it? -- a budding rivalry. Instead, Kim once again found himself denying his opponent's words.

"I don't think I made him putt any short putts, maybe a two-and-a-half footer," he said. "But it had a lot of break. It's match play."

Brash, bold and boisterous, Kim will never be considered among the most cordial of professional golfers, and yet even he chose not to swallow any subsequent negative reaction by deflecting his comments toward the literal rather than address them as a response to Allenby's words 20 days prior. He went on to defeat the Aussie, 5 and 4, before falling to Ross Fisher in the final on Sunday, but at least we now have greater reason to pay attention next time.

The sad reality, though, is that there may not be a next time. The odds of Kim and Allenby facing each other in another match play competition are remote at best, and the chances they will meet in the final pairing of a big-time event are only slightly more reasonable.

This is hardly the first occasion of supposed animosity between players never quite coming to a head. Just take the game's No. 1-ranked player for proof.

Woods was once lightly called out by Stephen Ames before a first-round meeting at the Accenture Match Play Championship, then deposited his opponent from the bracket early, winning 9 and 8; since then, the two have hardly been seen in the same place at the same time.

And then there's Rory Sabbatini, who proffered words for Woods through the media after losing to him. He still hasn't defeated Tiger in any head-to-head competition -- not because the better player has prevailed, but simply because such a confrontation has never taken place.

Ask fans of other sports and they will readily acknowledge that rivalries have livened the level of fandom, increasing interest not only in the competitors but the pursuits themselves. It is easy to view the wide landscape of professional golf and assess that it needs more of these rivalries, too, though such an allowance isn't one that can be forced and doesn't come without repeated meetings between players on a grand stage -- preferably with a little animosity thrown in for good measure.

The truth is, we're so starved for conflict in the game that even somewhat benign accusations become fodder for conflict. Kim and Allenby offered some decent theater during their two matches -- and in between -- but their alleged rivalry will likely never come to fruition. In golf, that's just the way it goes, no matter how much we would prefer it the other way around.

Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.

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Golf Editor, ESPN.com
Jason Sobel, who joined ESPN in 1997, earned four Sports Emmy awards as a member of ESPN's Studio Production department. He became ESPN.com's golf editor in July 2004.

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