Perhaps the greatest rivalry in golf over the past 20 years, and possibly the best ever has been Tiger Woods vs. Phil Mickelson.   It was always back and forth, each one fighting for the next major and often going head-to-head during tournament rounds.  

Now, it seems this rivalry is in its twilight, with Phil often barely contending to make the cut, and Tiger battling his own body. Their rivalry is so strong that even in the waning years it’s still fun to watch them go up against each other, and it even garnered a PPV “The Match” event that millions tuned into.  Even during horrible rounds, they always seem to try to one-up the other.  So today, we examine what makes a good rivalry, and what could be the next great rivalry in PGA golf.  

First, we look at what makes a great PGA rivalry.  There are many aspects that make a rivalry great, here are some.  


Competitiveness is perhaps the most important element of any sports rivalry.  Each individual/sports team must be relatively equally matched and often go head-to-head in matches to ignite a competitive nature.  Without it, there is no rivalry.  Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus come to mind when it comes to competitiveness, they battled for years, and went back and forth for a large part of the 60s and 70s, even into the 80s. 

Fighting for the same goal

Both individuals must be battling for the same goal, whether it’s a regular tournament, a major championship, the FedEx Cup, or the number one ranking. In golf, it’s easy to find these mutual goals.  It’s also important that this fight for the same goal is a tight one.  When both individuals have the same goals and dreams it makes the battle much more exciting.  In the PGA, this is easy, all golfers are up against the same odds, playing the same course, and shooting for the win. 

An opponent worthy of respect

Mutual respect is key to a great rivalry.  Opponents need to be of equal skillset and able to win just as much as the other.  This respect and equality of the game increase the feeling of accomplishment when a win comes along.  Having a worthy opponent is important because it ups the stakes, there is no rivalry if you know who’s going to win each time.  

Fan following

Having a large fan following increases the rivalry both between opponents and between fans.  During the Tiger and Phil years, most people either identified as a “Phil Guy” or a “Tiger Guy”.  This made the rivalry even more interesting, often raising friendly arguments between friends over who would win week over week.  Creating dual fandoms makes everything more interesting, remember the Coke vs. Pepsi savages?

Trash Talk, or the equivalent in golf 

Everybody loves a little trash talk between rivals.  In the PGA this often comes in small little digs or comments before or after a round, or even Twitter posts.  Tiger is known for his trash talk both in comments caught by the media or on the course itself.  This adds a layer of mental play that is just as skillfully used as the golf game.  

What could be the next great rivalry in golf? 

Rory McIlroy vs. Brooks Koepka

This one may be a little on the older side, but still holds merit because of each golfer’s popularity and competitiveness between the two.  It all started when Koepka was asked about the rivalry and responded that McIlroy “hadn’t won a major since Koepka had been on the tour”.  McIlroy responded that although he was correct, Koepka didn’t need to rub it in.  McIlroy started the season with the number one ranking and this was set to be a battle over majors but Koepka spent a large part of the season injured, then COVID hit and the rivalry somewhat fizzled out.  

Dustin Johnson, John Rahm, and Justin Thomas vs. #1 Ranking

This has shaped up to be quite the fight over the number one spot. All three of these guys have a tremendous fan following which makes it fun to watch them work each week. Justin Thomas overtook McIlroy for the spot at the beginning of the year. John Rahm held the spot later, then lost it again to Thomas, then earned it back by winning the Memorial tournament.  Dustin Johnson ended the year with the number one spot, and only solidified his standing with a dominant win at the Masters. This fight for number one will be one to watch in 2021.   

Bryson Dechambeau vs. Brooks Koepka

Koepka’s name pops up again on the list, although this time it’s as more of an internet troll over anything else.  The rivalry began with Koepka complaining about Dechambeau’s deliberate slow play causing problems for other players on the tour.  It continued when Dechambeau famously argued with an official over a bad lie during a tournament.  Koepka posted a series of memes online about Dechambeau’s reaction and behavior during the argument.  If Koepka can return to form in 2021, he could be one of the only ones to compete both on the course and in the gym.  

Dechambeau vs. Any course

We have all watched Dechambeau transform his body and become a veritable hulk on the course.  His driving average is ridiculous and clubhead speed is out of this world. He has certainly taken a more cerebral approach to the game as well. Known as “The Scientist”, he is constantly tinkering with his game, and trying to overpower most courses.  Sometimes this method backfires on courses that favor a more conservative approach, a perfect example being the 2020 Masters.  It will be interesting to watch him tackle any course in 2021. 

Xander Shauffele vs. Major Championships

Xander is super fun to watch in majors.  He always seems to be near the top of the leaderboard, but seemingly can’t get over that elusive second place barrier.  His best finish was a tie for 2nd at the Open in 2018 and another tie for 2nd at the 2019 Masters. It’s clear he gears himself up for each major and always finds himself in contention. Everyone likes to see a first-time Major winner, and we are all rooting for him to pull through.  We will see if this is his year and he can secure his first major.  

Collin Morikawa vs. Xander Shauffele

This is an under-the-radar rivalry that could blossom in the coming years. Both are young, both are always in contention, and both have a growing fan following.  They rank 7 and 8 respectively, with Morikawa holding 1 major (PGA Championship) under his belt and Shauffele with none. Shauffele holds the career win total 4-3.  Both of their iron games are on point with an incredible short game to match.  Lately, they find themselves close atop the leaderboard each week, often paired together.  This one has some promise to become a great rivalry due to fan following, mutual respect, and big-time competitiveness.  

Like all major sports, the PGA tour needs a great rivalry to boost viewership and keep people interested.  Though we may never see a rivalry the likes of Tiger vs. Phil, or Arnie vs. Jack, there are definitely some rivalries to watch in the coming years.  These potential rivalries have all the elements to make a great rivalry, whether it’s Pro vs. Pro, or Pro vs. Accomplishment, or Pro vs. Course. 

Don’t worry, my fiercest competition is still the game itself so feel free to come to watch me play if you really want to see an age-old rivalry in full force.    

Mike Joslin

Originally from New York and now based in Honolulu — a golfer's paradise — Mike Joslin is an avid golfer and self-proclaimed Hack, just enjoying the game ... foot wedges, Mulligan, and all. Handicap: Currently averaging 4.2 mulligans per round.