About all anyone can say with certainty about No. 1 in the world is that it won’t be Tiger Woods at the end of October.
It won’t be Phil Mickelson, either.
Lee Westwood hobbled home from the Dunhill Links Championship at St. Andrews to rest his calf injury. He doesn’t plan to compete again until the HSBC Champions in Shanghai at the earliest. By not playing, and through a gradual reduction of points, he will have a higher average than Woods in the ranking published Nov. 1.
But that doesn’t guarantee Westwood will be atop the world ranking for the first time in his career.
Martin Kaymer moved to No. 4 with his fourth win of the year at the Dunhill Links, and the 25-year-old German can go to No. 1 if he wins the Andalucia Masters at Valderrama the last weekend in October.
“At the moment, for me, Lee Westwood is the best player in the world,” Kaymer said.
They all could meet in Shanghai – assuming Westwood is fit to play – and all four could have a shot at No. 1.
For most of the last decade, any debate about the world ranking took place around No. 50, not at the top. Aside from incentives in endorsement contracts, the real value of the ranking came from the majors giving exemptions to the top 50 (or the top 100 for the PGA Championship).
Even those who didn’t understand how the ranking worked rarely quibbled about No. 1. That much was obvious.
Woods returned to No. 1 a week before the 2005 U.S. Open, and he stayed there by doing in five years what it has taken Westwood a career to achieve – 32 victories (along with five majors) and 15 runner-up finishes.
The question is why Woods stayed there so long this year.
Not only did he take off five months when his personal life imploded, Woods has only two top 10s this year, a tie for fourth in the Masters and U.S. Open. Because points are gradually reduced over a rolling two-year period, Woods has lost more points this year (330.105) than any other player has earned.
But it’s important to understand what the world ranking is – and what it is not.
Just because a player is No. 1 in the world doesn’t mean he’s the world’s best player. Anyone who has watched Woods over the course of the season can figure that out. It also was pretty clear in 2004 that Vijay Singh was the best golfer on the planet, yet the Fijian didn’t rise to No. 1 until the sixth of his nine wins that season.
Being No. 1 simply means that player has compiled the best average (net points divided by number of tournaments) during a two-year period. The world ranking used to measure three years. The board could decide it should be only one year. Or one month.
In the last two years, Woods won seven times and finished in the top 10 in 58 percent of his tournaments. No one else has done that.
Mickelson has been No. 2 for most of the year, and he has been No. 2 longer than anyone in the history of the world ranking without reaching the top. Lefty has only himself to blame for that. He had 13 straight starts this year with a chance to replace Woods at No. 1 and didn’t get it done, including a 78 in the final round at Firestone and a 76 in the final round at the TPC Boston.
It would be an amazing comeback for Westwood, who was No. 4 in the world in 2000, then fell out of the top 200 during a three-year slump. He never imagined back then that he could one day reach No. 1.
“It’s something I’ve always dreamed of, and it would be great if it happened,” he said.