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Golf's next great rivalry might be hard to find

The seeds for the next great rivalry in golf supposedly were planted a year ago this week at the Bay Hill Invitational.

Ernie Els, Tiger Woods and Davis Love III were in the final threesome for a 36-hole final, all of them winners of a major championship the year before. Even more tantalizing was the fact that Woods, just one month earlier in Thailand, came from seven strokes off the lead to catch Els and beat him in a playoff.

Els got his revenge. While Woods had made up 11 strokes in the final 36 holes in Thailand, Els was 12 strokes clear of Woods at Bay Hill.

Did he feel a rivalry with Woods?

"Well, you're probably going to feel it a lot more now," Els said.

The feeling was fleeting.

Neither was much of a factor in the Masters. Els hurt his back the week before his defense in the U.S. Open and never could muster an attack. Neither did Woods, although he had a great start and finish in the British Open, missing the playoff by one stroke.

The only other time Woods went head-to-head with another emerging star was in the World Series of Golf in August. He was tied with David Duval going into the weekend, but Duval closed with rounds of 66-68 for a two-stroke victory over Phil Mickelson and six shots ahead of Woods.

When Duval opened the new season with a nine-stroke victory in the Mercedes Championship and then a 59 on Sunday to win the Bob Hope Classic, the debate turned to whether Duval or Woods deserved to be No. 1 in the world rankings.

Ernie who?

Fast forward one month to find the two-time U.S. Open champion going down the stretch in Los Angeles against Woods and winning by two strokes, with Duval another stroke behind. Els won for the sixth straight year on the PGA Tour, the longest streak anyone had put together from his rookie season since Jack Nicklaus won at least once for 17 years.

All of a sudden, the next great rivalry in golf is starting to get crowded.

Not even three months into the 1999 season, Els and Duval have won twice (Els also won the South African Open). Woods won the Buick Invitational in San Diego and has been in the top five in all but one of his stroke-play tournaments.

And there is still room for others to join them.

What happens when Mickelson, who already has won 13 times, wins again? What if Justin Leonard wins the Masters or the U.S. Open, giving him as many majors as Greg Norman?

"You're going to have stages where Tiger and Ernie might be going, or Tiger and David, or Phil and David. Justin can be thrown in there, too," said Mark O'Meara, the 42-year-old champion of the Masters and British Open.

"You have a nice core of some very fine, young, talented players who aren't going anywhere but towards the top."

Still, there will always be room at the top for Woods, the one constant in the evolution of golf's next great rivalry. Duval has won more PGA Tour events. Els has won more majors. But a bulls-eye was painted on Woods when Nicklaus predicted he would win 10 green jackets -- and then Woods won his first Masters as a professional by 12 strokes.

"Tiger will always play the leading role in this little tale," Els said.


"He is 23 years old," O'Meara said. ``This kid has got an incredible 12 to 15 years ahead of him. He can do things with the golf ball that a majority of these guys out here can't do. That's why the comparisons go towards him."

More than that, his charisma makes Woods either a hero or a villain, which can be a crucial ingredient for just about any rivalry.

Long before Nicklaus was revered as perhaps the greatest in the game, he was the brash and sassy threat to the stylish, adored Arnold Palmer. That great rivalry of the 1960s soon gave way to Nicklaus and Lee Trevino, followed briefly by Nicklaus and Johnny Miller.

One of the last great rivalries was Nicklaus and Tom Watson, which started in 1977 when Nicklaus finished second to Watson in the Masters and British Open, and ended in 1982 U.S. Open with Watson's chip-in for a birdie on the 17th hole at Pebble Beach.

What made those rivalries so captivating was the player (Nicklaus) and the arena (major championships).

As long as Woods stays near the top, golf has a chance to get another great rivalry. Until these young stars slug out in the majors, it may never blossom.