Tiger Woods vs. Phil Mickelson, and the Power of Rivalry

ESPN has been hyping tomorrow's opening round U.S. Open pairing of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, the two top-ranked players in the world, as historic and unprecedented. Of course, what else can be said? Mickelson has proved the most durable of the golfers cast as worthy challengers to Woods's supremacy. And but for a few errant shots and a major brain glitch at the 2006 U.S. Open, when Mickelson threw away what would have been his third consecutive major victory, "Lefty" might have emerged as the real deal rather than an appealing foil.

But while the duo are likely to provide a good show—if only for their contrasting styles and palpable discomfort playing with each other—everybody knows that golf has become a game with one story and just one overarching star. The focus at Torrey Pines in San Diego this weekend is not Tiger and Phil together again, but Tiger and his left knee: the golfing titan's return to competition two months after arthroscopic surgery.

While Tiger remains the most compelling athlete in the world today, his comeback is not much by sporting standards, nothing at all by the standards of his own sport and this tournament. Indeed, any discussion of golfing comebacks starts (and possibly ends) with Ben Hogan winning the 1950 U.S. Open just 16 months after the hard-as-nails Texan was nearly killed in a car accident. Hogan's spine and leg injuries were serious enough that doctors despaired that the game's premier player at that time might never walk again. He not only walked again (though not without pain), 11 months later he returned to the golf course. And just five months after that he won his second Open and his fourth major. To secure that title Hogan would not only have to endure 36 holes on the final day, as was the tournament tradition in those days, but an 18-hole playoff the next day. In a new HBO documentary, airing tonight at 10 p.m., on the eve of the 2008 Open, veteran golf writer Dan Jenkins called Hogan's stunning triumph "the greatest comeback in the history of sports."

The HBO film "Back Nine at Cherry Hills: The Legends of the 1960 U.S. Open" uses that 1950 Open as part of the backdrop that makes the same championship a decade later such an epic encounter. It makes abundantly clear why, amid such a vast array of international golfing talent, we pundits have yearned to anoint one rival as a legitimate threat to Woods's supremacy. And it explains our great disappointment that all those we have anointed—Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, David Duval—have come up short or fallen away in the face of such a daunting challenge.

As opposed to the hype for tomorrow's pairing, what happened at Cherry Hills actually was unprecedented and historic. The golfing world witnessed the intersection—perhaps one might even say the collision—of three great champions of the game: the past champion, the present champion and the future champion. For Hogan, at 47, Cherry Hills was to be a swan song, and few expected his appearance to be noteworthy on more than a sentimental level. Arnold Palmer was in his prime; golf's reigning king was a handsome and charismatic performer, beloved by his "army" of fans, who elevated the game to new heights of popularity. And Jack Nicklaus was just a 20-year-old amateur, an Ohio State frat boy who, despite a prodigious talent, was not considered remotely ready yet to contend.

It wasn't simply that all three golfers were there at Cherry Hills—there have been many ceremonial gatherings of champions from all eras—but that from a glut of golfers in contention in the final round, all three golfing legends emerged with a chance to win the tournament. Hogan, seeking his record fifth U.S. Open title, was tied for the lead playing the 17th hole when he made a shockingly uncharacteristic blunder: a chip that came up short and spun back into a creek. Nicklaus, who had all the strokes but not yet the savvy, missed a medium-range putt on 18 that would have forced a playoff. Earlier, on the back nine, he had missed a "gimme" because he didn't bother to repair a ball mark on the green. But if it is true that one learns more from defeat than victory, the runner-up finish may have contributed more than any other tournament to Nicklaus's record 18 major titles.

In the end, that day at Cherry Hills belonged to Arnie, charging from seven strokes back with a brilliant final round of 65 to win his first and only Open championship. Palmer probably didn't recognize yet what loomed ahead with Nicklaus, a rivalry for the ages. But he certainly knew what was leaving in Hogan. And he wasn't really sorry to see him go. Palmer describes Hogan as a great golfer but not a great guy. Hogan carried demons from a hardscrabble youth that saw his father, a failed blacksmith, commit suicide when Ben was just six years old. He was not amiable and quite often irascible. Palmer, the son of a country club groundskeeper, hardly grew up with a sense of entitlement, but he prided himself on both his game and his cordial demeanor.

Back in 1958, at the Masters, Palmer, then 28, had played a morning practice round in a foursome that included Hogan. When the group got back to the clubhouse, Palmer was surprised when Hogan sat down to lunch at a separate table. And even more surprised when he clearly heard Hogan disparaging his game and wondering aloud, "How'd he get in the Masters?" Palmer settled that issue in just a few days by winning the green jacket, but one suspects that two years later at Cherry Hills he found added satisfaction in denying Hogan his fairy tale ending.

Here's hoping for some weekend dramatics from Tiger and company at the Open. But before then, "Back Nine at Cherry Hills" is a delicious appetizer, a reminder of how rivalry spices up the game in a manner that even Tiger's unsurpassed talent can't quite match.