Golfs Greatest Rivalries


Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.

Friends and still rivals.

When these two giants of the game reach the first tee at Augusta National Thursday morning to hit ceremonial first tee shots together for the first time at the Masters, you can’t help wondering how determined they’ll be to best each other with the better drive.

As much as the Golden Bear and the King will talk about their bond over the years, their intense desire to beat each other will forever distinguish their relationship.

They top our list of the five greatest rivalries in golf history.

Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer
Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer at the 1994 Masters. (Getty Images)
The rivalry isn’t distinguished so much in the closeness of the Nicklaus-Palmer competition but the classic nature of it. The distinction is in the fierceness of their early battles and the differences in their personalities. Nicklaus may be the greatest player who ever lived, a gentleman champion who won as much respect for his sportsmanship as his victory total, but Palmer will always be remembered as the most beloved player.

Nicklaus won more trophies, Palmer won more hearts.

The special nature of their relationship makes their new roles as honorary starters a moment to celebrate this week.

“There were times we were a little testy years ago, but we’ve always been close friends,” Nicklaus said. “I think we both felt the same way. If either one of us needed something, we could just pick up the phone and call and the other would be there.

“We’ve played [as partners] in the Ryder Cup and World Cup together. We’ve played tons together. Two guys who don’t like each other are not going to play together.”

Still, it’s not the Nicklaus-Palmer mega-star collaborations as teammates that excited golf. It was their showdowns.

“No matter where we played, we always wanted to beat each other,” Nicklaus said. “I don’t care if it is in golf or golf course design or commercials. We always wanted to beat each other. That has always been our nature. But then we go home and have dinner together and a glass of wine and slap each other on the back.”

Even with Palmer turning 80 and Nicklaus 70, the competitiveness is still there.

Nicklaus won six Masters titles, more than anyone else, Palmer won four, but they still compete over turf here. Palmer began hitting a ceremonial first tee shot three years ago. When Golf World’s Bill Fields asked Palmer two years ago how he would feel about Nicklaus joining him on the first tee, Palmer sounded like a man who was being asked to step back into Nicklaus’ shadow.

“No, I think one starter is enough,” Palmer said then. “When Jack’s ready, I’ll step aside.”

Watch Tiger Woods' Masters press conference LIVE on Golf Channel and Monday at 2 p.m. ET!

Jack was ready after last year’s Masters, but exactly how he made his way to joining Palmer as honorary starter this year is uncertain. Nicklaus said Augusta National Chairman Billy Payne extended the offer at Palmer’s behest.

“Billy came to me and said, `Arnold would like to have you join him,’” Nicklaus said. “I’m delighted to join Arnold. I’m delighted that Arnold has welcomed me to join him.”

Palmer was asked at the Arnold Palmer Invitational last week if he invited Nicklaus to join him.

“No,” Palmer said. “Well, I wouldn’t say I didn’t. It’s been suggested that we might do it together.”

This isn’t to say Palmer isn’t looking forward to sharing the stage with Nicklaus, but it’s another example of the complexity of their relationship.

Ian O’Connor explored the complex nature of the men with the release of his book “Arnie & Jack” two years ago.

The book showed how these rivals could warm to each other, revealing how they fell into each other's arms crying at the funeral of Palmer's wife, Winnie. They wept in both sadness and joy that day with news that Nicklaus' son, Gary, had just earned his PGA Tour card.

The book also explored how their personalities can still clash. Nicklaus was quoted saying he was never more irritated with Palmer than in their pairing with Gary Player at the Masters in 2000. Nicklaus wasn't ready for the nostalgic pairing, and the book details his offense when Palmer wouldn't shake his hand after the round.

'I think Jack was an easy lightning rod for my father's desire to be perceived as the best at everything that had to do with golf,” Palmer's oldest daughter, Peg, told O'Connor in the book. “I don't think it was really personal, but there were things about Jack's personality and character that were irritating to my dad.”

We wouldn’t expect anything less among great rivals.

It's part of what we loved about their competition.

Here’s our listing of the game’s other top rivalries:

Ben Hogan vs. Sam Snead

Like Nicklaus-Palmer, the classic nature of this rivalry wasn’t all about the competition. The nature of these men added to the intrigue.

Like brothers born too close together, they were polar opposites. Snead's swing seemed like a heavenly gift. It was so natural; the most effortless and rhythmic in the game. Hogan's was a technical masterpiece, a laborious work fashioned blacksmith-like in the dust and dirt of Fort Worth, Texas. Snead wore the straw fedora hat and was outgoing, a hillbilly boy from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia who loved to tell stories and jokes. Hogan wore the tam-o'-shanter and was introverted, a quiet, mysterious man who intimidated just about everyone who teed it up with him.

“The things I fear most in golf are lightning, Ben Hogan and downhill putts,” Snead once said.

The frustration Snead faced competing with Hogan was never clearer than in 1950, when Snead won 11 times and Hogan won just once and yet Hogan was named Player of the Year. That’s the year Hogan came back to win the U.S. Open after nearly dying in a car crash.

Bobby Jones vs. Walter Hagen

The gentleman amateur and the flamboyant pro staged some legendary exhibitions in their time.

Though Jones is regarded as the greatest player of that era, maybe the greatest ever, Hagen trounced him in the special “World Championship” match they staged in 1926, a 72-hole exhibition. Hagen won 12 and 11. Two weeks later, they had “The Rematch” at the Florida West Coast Open. Hagen won again. But it’s reported that when sportswriters elected Jones the best golfer of the first half of the 20th century, Hagen said: “I would have voted for Jones myself. He was marvelous.”

Jack Nicklaus vs. Tom Watson

 Nicklaus won more than twice as many majors as Watson (18 to 8), but nobody beat Nicklaus in more dramatic fashion on the game’s largest stages. Watson’s chip in at the 71st hole at Pebble Beach to help him beat Nicklaus at the U.S. Open in 1982 stands out, but he gave golf its most dramatic finish beating Nicklaus in their Duel in the Sun at Turnberry in ’77. That’s the year Watson shot 66-65 on the weekend to win by a shot with Nicklaus shooting a pair of 66s.

Harry Vardon vs. James Braid vs. J.H. Taylor

The trio can’t be separated. In fact, they were known as “The Great Triumvirate” overseas.

From 1894 to 1914, the trio combined to win the British Open 16 times. England’s Harry Vardon won it six times with England’s J.H. Taylor and Scotland’s James Braid winning five times each.