Battle isn't as close as it seems

Updated: May 21, 2004, 5:42 PM ET
By John Hawkins | Golf World

Two guys were walking down the 18th hole at this year's Players Championship. One of the men clearly possessed strong knowledge of current events on the PGA Tour; the other sounded like a part-time fan with limited grasp. "So who's the best player out here?" Mr. Casual Interest asked his educated friend.

"Oh, Tiger," he was told. "Tiger Woods has been the No. 1 player in the world for like five or six years."

Turns out the earth isn't flat after all. "You're kidding!" the newly enlightened man gasped. "I thought Tiger was in some big slump. You mean to tell me nobody jumped ahead of him?"

Not yet, probably not anytime soon, and maybe not ever. However precarious Woods' lead in the Official World Golf Ranking may seem -- and for all the attention justifiably devoted to the dwindling gap -- Vijay Singh actually is closer to third place (1.11 points ahead of Ernie Els) than first (2.62 points behind Woods). And since Singh revived the question of who's No. 1 with back-to-back victories in Houston and New Orleans, Woods has widened his margin with top-five finishes in Charlotte, N.C., and Dallas.

As the season heats up with three majors in the next three months, here's all you need to know about the great chase -- and without getting too complex, the vagaries of the World Ranking.

Can Singh catch Woods before next month's U.S. Open?

No, particularly after a 78 last Sunday dropped Singh from a tie for fifth to T-59 at the EDS Byron Nelson Championship. Woods' 2.62-point lead may not sound like much, but it's the difference between the world's 12th-ranked player (Adam Scott) and No. 55 (Duffy Waldorf). It won't vanish overnight, even if overnight takes four weeks. "Singh got close with two good weeks, but the last two weeks have been good for Tiger," said Ian Barker, who began overseeing the World Ranking when it transferred from IMG to the Royal & Ancient earlier this year. "We're almost back to where we started."

How about if Singh wins next month at Shinnecock Hills?

Things obviously will get "very, very close," according to Barker, but that's assuming Woods misses the cut or finishes deep in the pack. Complicating matters is the formula itself -- a two-year sliding scale in which players lose points as well as earn them. Singh, for instance, just lost 7.25 points off last year's Nelson win, which had an original value of 58. Bottom line? Even a U.S. Open triumph probably leaves Singh in second place.

Tiger's last major title was at the '02 U.S. Open. Won't he lose a bunch of ground when those points expire?

He already has. The win at Bethpage, originally a 100-pointer, is now worth just 12.5, as the ranking divides the previous two years into eight three-month segments, with recent tournaments worth more points. A top-10 finish at Shinnecock will earn Woods more points than he loses, which is the biggest reason he's still No. 1. He may not win as often as he once did, but he earns points in every start, minimizing the effect of his so-called slump.

How much does becoming the world's top-ranked player mean to Singh?

He addressed the issue last week in Dallas. "I don't really think about it [during] a tournament," he said. "I always think about it afterward, [but] I don't go home and get on the computer and look where I stand. That is my goal -- at some point I want to be the first-ranked player -- but there are a lot of factors involved. I'm a little disappointed the gap is still 2 points, three points all the time. It seems like a top-10 doesn't matter unless you win."

This talk of Woods having an advantage in the ranking because he plays fewer tournaments than Singh -- true or false?

True, although a plan is under consideration to balance the system with a "maximum divisor," which would count a player's best 50 finishes over the two-year period instead of every start. Woods barely makes the minimum divisor of 40; Singh routinely surpasses 50. However, if the proposed system were in effect today, Singh would still be second, 1.01 points behind Woods despite dropping his eight worst non-major finishes. "The system favors players who don't play as much," Singh said, "and I play a lot of golf. I have to play a lot of good golf, and if I do that, I'll hit my mark."

John Hawkins is a senior writer for Golf World magazine

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