Editorial: Tiger Woods has never had a true rival; Not Mickelson, Duval, Garcia, Els, Singh, Goosen

No less a golf authority than Arnold Palmer believes Tiger Woods needs a rival to push him past Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major championships.

"If the competition is there," Palmer told Yahoo! Sports, "he's going to be pressed to be better."

And, certainly, there's wisdom in those words, which come during the longest Grand Slam drought of Woods' career and in the lead-up to this week's British Open.

Woods hasn't won a major championship since outplaying Rocco Mediate in a playoff to take the trophy at the 2008 U.S. Open. He is winless in his last 16 majors.

But he's still No. 1.

Which figures.

Even now, at age 37 and playing on a left knee that has undergone four surgeries, Woods remains the world's best golfer.

Already, he's one of the game's all-time greats. And if he catches Nicklaus, many argue Woods would own the title of "Best Ever."

But would he?

Or would Woods be merely the Larry Holmes of his sport?

You remember Holmes? Boxing's heavyweight champion from 1978 to 1985? The Pennsylvania fighter who won his first 48 bouts before losing to Michael Spinks and falling one victory shy of Rocky Marciano's 49-0 record?

During his reign, Holmes, the "Easton Assassin" as he was known, dominated his class, winning 15 of his 20 title defenses by knockout.

He might've been the "Best Ever" in heavyweight boxing.

We don't know.

We don't know because Holmes' championship run began during the twilight of the Ali-Frazier-Foreman years and ended before a young Mike Tyson started pummeling everyone who dared stand in front of him.

We don't know because Holmes never had a rival.

Same as Woods.

Throughout his 18 years on the PGA Tour, Woods has fended off several wannabe-challengers -- David Duval, Sergio Garcia, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, Retief Goosen and Phil Mickelson -- but none has threatened him consistently enough to be considered a serious rival.

Especially in majors.

Rarely has Woods gone head-to-head against one of his supposed rivals on the back nine of a Grand Slam Sunday.

Garcia, who was touted as Europe's next phenom in the late 1990s, finished one stroke back as Woods won the 1999 PGA Championship. And Duval, who won 13 times from 1997 to 2001 and held the No. 1 ranking for most of 1998 before his career disintegrated, finished two strokes back as Woods won the 2001 Masters.

Mostly, though, Woods has either run away with the tournament -- he won seven of his 14 major championships by margins of at least three shots, including an eight-stroke rout at the 2000 British Open, a 12-stroke blowout at the 1997 Masters and a historic 15-stroke triumph at the 2000 U.S. Open -- or beaten Tour journeymen enjoying the weeks of their lives.

Case in point: His three playoff victories at major championships came against Bob May, Chris DiMarco and Mediate.

As for the hoped-for Woods-versus-Mickelson rivalry, it has never really materialized, particularly at the majors.

Mickelson finished third to Woods at the 2001 and 2002 Masters, then beat him by two strokes at the 2005 PGA Championship after Woods won that year's Masters and British Open titles.

In Mickelson's three Masters victories, Woods finished tied for 22nd in 2004, tied for third in 2006 and tied for fourth in 2010.

Similarly, the trumped-up "Big Four" of Mickelson, Els, Singh and Goosen proved to be farce, too. Each won multiple majors, but most of their victories came when Woods was injured, changing his swing or in a slump.

Still, the golf media continues to pounce desperately on anyone who offers even a hint that he might emerge as a rival.

A couple of months ago, it was Garcia again, after his complaint about Woods at The Players Championship and, later, his "fried chicken" remark in England.

Before that, it was Rory McIlroy, who won the 2011 U.S. Open and 2012 PGA Championships before slumping this year.

But he's only 24. And wonderfully talented.

There's still time for him to be the major-championship challenger Palmer says Woods need to get past his only real rival.


INFO BOX: Tiger Woods' 14 major championships

Tournament, Runner-up, Margin

1997 Masters, Tom Kite, 12 strokes

1999 PGA Championship, Sergio Garcia, 1 stroke

2000 U.S. Open, E. Els, M. Jimenez, 15 strokes

2000 British Open, T. Bjorn, E. Els, 8 strokes

2000 PGA Championship, Bob May, Playoff

2001 Masters, David Duval, 2 strokes

2002 Masters, Retief Goosen, 3 strokes

2002 U.S. Open, Phil Mickelson, 3 strokes

2005 Masters, Chris DiMarco, Playoff

2005 British Open, Colin Montgomerie, 5 strokes

2006 British Open, Chris DiMarco, 2 strokes

2006 PGA Championship, Shaun Micheel, 5 strokes

2007 PGA Championship, Woody Austin, 2 strokes

2008 U.S. Open, Rocco Mediate, Playoff

(Ray Mcnulty is a columnist for Scripps Treasure Coast (Fla.) Newspapers, The Stuart News, Fort Pierce Tribune and Vero Beach Press Journal. Email ray.mcnulty@scripps.com.)

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