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Tiger's real rival 67 and retired

Golf's search for a rivalry is, in its odd way, a compliment to Tiger Woods, as if Tiger Woods needed more signs of approval.

Tiger Woods deserves the challenge, you see, something to test his limits, to make him the best he can be, lest he fall into complacency and self-satisfaction. And lest we get tired of his dominance.

Nothing is duller than a one-horse race, unless it is clay court doubles.

In myth, as well as on the sports pages, stories are always more interesting when the hero has a foe, someone to keep him alert, which is why young Harry must have his Voldemort or he is just another nerd in taped glasses.

And that is why, if Tiger Woods won't look over his shoulder, the world is eager to do it for him.

As it turns out, the only persistent rival for Tiger Woods has been Jack Nicklaus, 67, a phantom and a memory, not a flesh and fresh contemporary.

If Nicklaus could, on young and real hips, go stride for stride with Tiger Woods in this week's U.S. Open at Oakmont, this would be ideal. But tedious totals are all we have, Nicklaus' Grand Slam sum of 18 and Tiger Woods' 12.

When this reaches real tension — hopefully, with greater anticipation than Barry Bonds chasing Henry Aaron — will be years into the future, when Tiger Woods is only one major away.

Until then, we can either ignore Tiger Woods, golf and the whole thing, or find for him a current Nicklaus figure, silly search since Tiger Woods himself is the only one who qualifies.

Tiger Woods' competition with Nicklaus is a duel with only one active adversary, like a greyhound chasing a mechanical rabbit.

What we want and what we grab at the least chance is for Tiger Woods to be challenged by someone he changes shoes next to, providing that Tiger Woods puts his Nikes on one foot at a time.

And who we would really like it to be is Phil Mickelson, mostly because Mickelson is as fatally flawed, as Tiger Woods is infuriatingly perfect.

Oh, sure, we would take Ernie Els or Sergio Garcia or, in our wildest dreams John Daly, although Daly is preoccupied with his own rivals carrying steak knives — just as long as it is somebody.

But we want Mickelson, and each bump toward our wish makes us look for things in Mickelson that, if they were there, would have shown up long before now.

Otherwise, we are left with Tiger Woods' personal obstacles, some real, most imagined, a few undoubtedly out of his own boredom. His marriage, his impending fatherhood, his grieving, his recurrent swing changes, his coach swapping, all of those are brief topics of concern, but what we really want is an equal.

Well, not an equal as much as a challenger, a focus of our attention rather than this eternal pick a foe, and always out of the usual suspects, with the occasional long leap to unproved hopefuls such as Luke Donald or Camilo Villegas.

Nicklaus did have a succession of challengers step up, from his first rivalry with Arnold Palmer and Gary Player to Lee Trevino and then Tom Watson.

Because of the more formidable opposition, the case can be made that Nicklaus' major record will be more highly regarded than wherever Tiger Woods stops. Is it easier to win, oh, 20 or 22 major titles when the opposition quakes at the name at the top of the leaderboard, when no two or one golfer is automatically linked to Tiger Woods as having played at the same time?

When Mickelson, with his three majors, and those just lately, is the most prominent name to occur after Tiger Woods, this has not exactly been Ali-Frazier or Affirmed-Alydar.

Considering some of the majors not won by Tiger Woods the last couple of years, we are left to wonder whatever happened to Zach Johnson, Geoff Ogilvy, Michael Campbell or Todd Hamilton.

In every case, it is not as if these guys won the Masters or either of the Opens but that Tiger Woods did not.

And so it will be this week. There is not likely to be the kind of grand goof that will follow Mickelson as long as anything else he may do, his double-bogey botch last year at Winged Foot, the greatest brain cramp since Jean Van de Velde butchered the 18th at Carnoustie in 1999.

It would take something like that to avoid the question at the end of not how, whatever your name is, did you win the Open, but how did Tiger lose it.

If Tiger Woods wins, we scratch off another number on the way to Nicklaus, and if he loses the Open, we give temporary custody as Tiger Woods' next rival to whoever wins, never believing it for a moment.

Read more at www.southcoasttoday.com




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