Is a sport better with a rivalry or a dominant force? Worldwide fandom would probably answer with a simple yes. Give us one or the other but not neither, not parity, please, not parity. Historically sports rivalries are local (Duke/North Carolina in college basketball), National (Yankees/Red Sox in Major League Baseball, or International (India/Pakistan in cricket). All great, all intense, they are the stuff of missives, majesty and movies. They pit teams and fan bases from communities, states and nations against one another for minutes, hours or, in the case of cricket, days at a time. Still some would argue that the best rivalries in sports are one on one, head to head, mano a mano and Ali/Frazier, Chamberlain/Russell and Evert/Navratilova could be offered as proof.
Professional golf has had its share of rivalries too, both one on one and team versus team. On the men’s side we were treated to Snead/Hogan, Palmer/Nicklaus and to a lesser extent Norman/Faldo. On the women’s side there was Suggs/Zaharias, Whitworth/Wright and Sorenstam/Webb. Golf has also seen days of utter domination from Bobby Jones to Jack to Tiger Woods and Mickey to Nancy to Annika. Was a singular sensation better than a bitter battle? If you ask me both are good and either makes the game, on a professional level, more interesting. Most fans would vote for a good, old fashioned, I’m better than you and I’ve got the trophies to prove it, rivalry and women’s golf has had some of the best.
Nancy Lopez turned pro in 1977, so did Betsy King. Beth Daniel joined them on the LPGA Tour in 1979 and Patty Sheehan arrived on the scene 12 months later. Then the four of them spent the next 20 years trying to beat each other’s brains out. Playing against each other almost every week Lopez led the way, in terms of wins, with 48, King had 39, Sheehan 35 and Daniel 33. When it came to Major Championships Patty and Betsy had the most with six each. I recently spoke with both Patty Sheehan and Beth Daniel who reminded me that future Hall of Fame inductees Amy Alcott, Juli Inkster and Pat Bradley happened to be teeing it up at that time too.
I asked if either of them considered any one fellow competitor a true rival and each offered interesting replies. Beth said she was motivated to beat them all but, in her words, “A win against Lopez was always special. She was the queen of golf and the fans adored her.” Sheehan quickly replied that she always felt her greatest rival was herself but when I pressed she elaborated, “Betsy always beat me but I got the most satisfaction beating Beth and Nancy.” The 80’s and early 90’s was a golden age of LPGA Tour golf and it influenced, then ushered in, what many consider women’s golf’s greatest rivalry… Sorenstam versus Webb.
Annika turned pro in 1992, Karrie two years later and both won for the first time on the LPGA Tour in 1995. Then they decided not to stop. In the five seasons between each’s first victory and the start of the new millennium they combined to capture 34 titles (Sorenstam had 18, Webb, 16). In three of those seasons Annika won more than Karrie and in the other two years the reverse was true. Then in 2000 a few things happened; Annika Sorenstam won five times, Karrie Webb won seven, including the United States Women’s Open Championship, and reality television juggernaut to be, Survivor made its debut.
The next year both were in the field at a tournament in Hawaii televised by Golf Channel and our production team thought it was the perfect time to build a feature around the field, the venue, and the hit TV show. The premise was simple; wander up and down the practice tee and ask as many players as we could which of their fellow competitors would they like to “vote off the island?” The question was met with laughter, head shakes and, more often than not, one of two answers, “Annika” or “Karrie”. When we posed the question to Ms. Sorenstam she answered in her inimitable shy, unassuming way with a soft chuckle and an “oh my gosh.” After thinking for just a few seconds she uttered, “Karrie” into the microphone and smiled.
A little later we found Ms. Webb beating balls, ever protected, at the time, by her caddie Mike Patterson. Karrie was the reigning U.S. Women’s Open Champion, LPGA Player of the Year, and a tough nut to crack. She was always accommodating and almost always friendly but you had to approach her at the right time and in the right way. We asked Mike if we could have a few minutes of her time and then we stepped back, set up, and waited. Several minutes later she joined us. I asked several questions to break the ice including, “What’s your favorite movie?” Her reply was simply, “Liar, Liar, best movie evah!” We shared a laugh and then I asked her the one question for which we came to get an answer, “If this was Survivor which one player would you vote off the island?” Suddenly she wasn’t laughing anymore. With a steely gaze she responded, “I’m not answering that.” She turned and found her caddie and added, “Mike, let’s go.” And she went.
Immediately I thought while each wanted to beat the other, winning that head to head battle meant more to Karrie than Annika but I wasn’t entirely sure why. Years later, after some reflection, I thought I knew. A little bit of it was personal but I believe most of it was they both knew how dominant Annika was about to become. For the next six years Madame Sorenstam was without peer. She won 46 times and eight of those wins were majors. Don’t get me wrong, Karrie was no slouch winning a dozen times including a second straight U.S. Women’s Open but it was Annika Sorenstam who became the face of women’s golf. By the end of 2001 the rivalry was over and the dominance had begun.
All of that brings me to today. The current crop of LPGA players is among the most talented the tour has ever seen. But instead of a rivalry I see something more akin to what the PGA TOUR had in the 1960’s with Palmer, Nicklaus and Player; The Big Three. Substitute Stacy Lewis, InBee Park and Lydia Ko for the three gentlemen and you’ve got an LPGA version that may be just as good. If you want you can even throw Michelle Wie in the mix playing the role of Billy Casper. What’s even more impressive is that Stacy is the “elder stateswoman” at the age of 30. Barring injury, apathy or something unforeseen we’ll be seeing these three battle for years to come.
You don’t need a rivalry when you’ve got a dominant player. You need it even less when you’ve got a “Big Three”.
Keith Hirshland’s experience has taken him all across the country, covering sport’s most famous athletes and television’s most interesting and charismatic personalities. Having worked at both the local affiliate and national network levels, Hirshland was on hand for the beginning stages of ESPN2 and one of the first forty people hired at the Golf Channel when the world’s first niche sports channel began its preparations in 1994. For years, he was part of the production team for golf’s nationally televised Skins Game. Hirshland has worked alongside sports television’s most iconic figures.
Also by Keith on womensgolf.com – It’s Michelle Wie’s World, I Just Lived in it for a While
*Image of Annika Sorenstam by Keith Allison used under Creative Commons Attribution License
*Image of Karrie Webb by Chee Moon used under Creative Commons Attribution License
*See the license terms under http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/us