Jack vs Arnie — Act II

Most historians would agree that the combination of Arnold Palmer and television brought golf to the masses.

It was the 1958 Masters, one of golf’s first televised events, which saw Palmer birdie the last two holes to win. That Masters victory propelled Palmer to become the sport’s first matinée idol since Bobby Jones. He was everything the golf world needed. He was charismatic, good looking, and played the game with reckless abandon. Plus, he literally redefined the way golfers interacted with the crowd. People loved him. And he became “The King.”

However, it was the arrival a few years later of Jack Nicklaus that really propelled golf to another level. Nicklaus was the anti-Palmer. He was overweight, not charismatic, and played the game with a Hogan like precision. He was the golfer people loved to hate. Everyone respected his ability — but very few liked the fact there was a new contender to the throne; Especially someone who didn’t smile on the course or sign hundreds of autographs afterwards. And of course, everyone remembers the epic playoff at the 1962 U.S. Open, held in Palmer’s backyard; Oakmont Country Club, just outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It was there that Nicklaus did the unthinkable — beating Palmer to notch his first victory.

Still, the rivalry was great for golf. And for a 5-year stretch, if Palmer didn’t win a big event — Nicklaus did. In fact, from 1960-66, Palmer and Nicklaus won 6 of 7 Masters titles. They basically took turns putting the green jacket on one another. They challenged one another to become better and quite frankly, neither Palmer or Nicklaus would have reached their historic heights without the other’s constant presence.

I believe we are primed to see the sequel to that great rivalry over the next couple years — with the opening act this summer — coming to a major near you. It’s time for Jack vs Arnie II, which someday history will remember as Tiger vs Phil. I see so many parallels between Jack/Arnie and Tiger/Phil — with Tiger taking on the role of Jack and Phil taking on the role of Arnie.

Lets first look at Tiger and Jack. Although I would say Tiger has definitely been more loved early in his career than Jack — it is still, in my opinion, not an idol worship – but more of a reverence. We are awed by this man’s great skills and are compelled to watch him — if only on the chance that we will see something never seen before. We respect Tiger, as he does everything correctly. He never says the wrong thing. He never chokes. He never lets us down with a missed 3 footer. He is, with the possible exception of Jack, the greatest golfer to ever hold a club. He is almost machine-like and we’re all extremely fortunate to be living in the “Age of Tiger.” He plays a game very similar to Nicklaus and if possible, wins more than Jack.

Phil Mickelson on the other hand is the anti-Tiger. He rarely plays the percentages. He breaks our hearts on a consistent basis. At times, we want to reach in the television and shake him. Try to get him thinking straight — so he doesn’t hit that driver on 18 at Winged Foot. Of course, he’s Phil, which means he wouldn’t have listened anyway. Still, we can relate to Phil a little better than Tiger. Phil has been disappointed. I’m not sure if Tiger has ever failed at anything. Phil has more than 5% body fat. Tiger worked out for 2 hours before winning the 2000 U.S. Open. Phil once got into gambling debt at Mandalay Bay Casino in Vegas. Tiger once had his charity ball at Mandalay Bay.

Why do I think Phil can challenge Tiger? Well, on top of Butch Harmon, it seems Phil has made a mental switch lately. He has taken the pressure off himself by saying — he would never be as good as Tiger. And that no matter what he did over the next few years, he could never come close to his record. I think that was the smartest thing Phil ever did. Look, it’s tough to be someone like Phil Mickelson without a giant ego. It’s almost impossible to ascend to his level without complete belief that you’re the best golfer. But the truth is — Tiger is better. Tiger knows it. Phil knew it. And Tiger knew that Phil knew. This combo makes it kind of tough to compete with someone coming down the stretch – especially if you’re kidding yourself and others by saying otherwise. But by taking the pressure off, like Phil has done recently, there is a much better chance of success. And I think we will see that success soon.

I look for Phil and Tiger to go head to head this summer in one of the majors. And I look for Phil to come out on top, which will give him so much confidence, that he will ride that wave the next few years and challenge Tiger regularly. He will never match Tiger’s record. Nor will he match his place in history. But I see Phil having a 50 win career with 6-7 majors. And if you think about it — that’s pretty close to Arnold Palmer’s record (63 wins – 7 majors). Of course, Tiger will probably go on to break all of Jack’s records, which will be something to see. And by the time he’s done, Tiger (like Jack) will be loved. He will be loved for his greatness. He will be loved for his steadfastness to his mission. He will be loved for all the memories. And when Tiger plays his last British Open in St. Andrews in about 35 years, the ovation he’ll get coming up 18 will be the loudest since Nicklaus’ final walk.

But until that time — golf fans want a rivalry. And the best rivalries are when two opposites go head to head. And if we are all just lucky enough — that is what we’ll see this summer.

One Response to “Jack vs Arnie — Act II”

  1. Ted Exley says:

    I am old enough to have been around when Palmer kicked it all off. I can also recall that there were occasions, at the time when Jack was beginning to challenge Arnie for supremacy, when the gallery said nasty things about him and actually gave him the ‘Boo’ at one tournament. But such behavior did not last for more than a couple of months and Jack quickly won them over with his big hitting.

    I am also around to see Tiger……I cannot yet ‘love’ him like I did the Big Three, but I have to say that he is definitely the best of them all…….

    I feel very lucky that I have seen all the modern greats!!

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