In rankings, there's a new sheriff in town

Originally Published: October 31, 2010
ESPN.com

Lee Westwood has never won a major. Tiger Woods has won 14. So does it make sense that Woods has dropped out of the top spot in the world rankings?

ESPN.com's Bob Harig and Jason Sobel debate the merits of Lee Westwood's ascension to the No. 1 ranking in the world.

FROM: Jason Sobel More

TO: Bob Harig

Well, for the first time in over a half-decade, Tiger Woods is no longer the No. 1-ranked golfer in the world. And you know what, Bob? Maybe the only surprising thing about this development is that it took so long. I mean, Phil Mickelson had about a million opportunities to overtake him this season and never did.

PGA Championship winner Martin Kaymer could have made the leap with a win or runner-up finish at Valderrama this past week, but he faltered. And so the new top dog is Lee Westwood -- a terrific player, though one who appears to have backed into this position, considering he's competed in only one tournament other than the Ryder Cup in the past two months due to a leg injury.

FROM: Bob Harig More

TO: Jason Sobel

The way this has gone down is probably fitting for the type of year we've just witnessed. Tiger didn't tee it up until April, he hasn't won so far, he posted just two top-10 finishes, he had his worst 72-hole tournament as a pro, he needed a captain's pick to get on the U.S. Ryder Cup team … and he remained No. 1 through it all.

We all realized some time ago that Tiger was not the best player in the world this year, but the complicated rankings system gave him a lot of credit for a remarkable 2009 in which he won nine times worldwide. Westwood is essentially being rewarded for being injured. All that said, don't you think Lefty has to be kicking himself?

FROM: Jason Sobel More

TO: Bob Harig

I would think so. Speaking of which, he often looked like he had as much of a chance of becoming No. 1 as a one-legged man in a butt-kicking contest. Every time Mickelson could have surpassed Woods -- which was basically every time he teed it up over the season's final four months or so -- he played like a guy who didn't deserve it.

That said, we should give him a bit of a free pass. Due to a bout with arthritis, he couldn't practice properly from Saturday before the U.S. Open in June until Tuesday of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in August. That's a span of two months. Gotta wonder whether he watched Westwood's ascendancy wistfully, though really I don't think any player wants to "earn" such an honor while in the midst of being injured.

FROM: Bob Harig More

TO: Jason Sobel

In every tournament Mickelson played after the Masters, he had an opportunity to move to No. 1 in the world. That's 13 tries, including the Scottish Open.

Most of the time he needed a win, but there were several instances in which a top-2 or -3 or -4 finish would have made Phil No. 1 for the first time in his career. And he couldn't get it done. Yes, it's true, he had the physical issues to deal with, so it is very difficult to take him to task for this.

Still, it would be a shame if he never gets there. And this was an incredible opportunity missed.

FROM: Jason Sobel More

TO: Bob Harig

Some will now complain about the authenticity of the world ranking, considering a four-time major winner and reigning Masters champion has never been No. 1, while a guy known for so many close calls in the four big ones has now reached that level.

But the ranking, which is based on a rolling two-year time frame and factored completely through a complicated formula, isn't meant to measure the "best" player; it's purpose to show who has performed better over this period of time. It's sort of like the difference in college football between the BCS ranking and the polls -- only in golf, there are no polls. Quite frankly, if there were, it would be neither Westwood nor Mickelson atop the list. I think Kaymer would get the nod right now. Agree?

FROM: Bob Harig More

TO: Jason Sobel

No question. Westwood has had an impressive year, with runner-up finishes at the Masters and British Open. And he won in Memphis on the PGA Tour, too.

Westwood earned a lot of rankings points. But Kaymer, right now, is the best player, based simply on results. He won early in the year in Abu Dhabi. He was seventh at the British Open. He then won three tournaments in a row, starting with a major at the PGA Championship, then followed by European Tour events in the Netherlands and then at the home of golf, St. Andrews, at the Dunhill Links.

Nobody in the world has won four times, but … he needed a better effort this week to get it done.

FROM: Jason Sobel More

TO: Bob Harig

All of which leads to the real story behind the No. 1 ranking right now: It's a wide-open race. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and we could see any number of players ascend to the top spot before one guy takes sole possession and keeps it for a while.

In fact, this coming week Westwood, Mickelson, Kaymer and, yes, even Woods are all competing in the HSBC event in China. I wouldn't be surprised if each of these guys takes a turn at No. 1 during the last few months of this year and first few of next year. Throw in guys like Steve Stricker, Jim Furyk and Paul Casey -- the next three on the current list -- and this thing could become a global game of musical chairs.

The real question: Which player will be sitting in the throne when the music stops?

FROM: Bob Harig More

TO: Jason Sobel

Well, first, you are likely correct to predict a good bit of give and take in the coming weeks and months. The schedule sets up that way. After China, Mickelson plays in Singapore while Woods will be in Australia. A few weeks later, Woods hosts his own tournament in California -- where Kaymer will also play.

Meanwhile, Westwood will be playing at the Sun City event the same week. Both tournaments give world rankings points.

Before that, Westwood and Kaymer will be part of the European Tour's Race to Dubai and will compete in the Dubai World Championship. This thing is likely to be traded a few times, but I don't think it's going way out to suggest that Tiger, at some point next year, will regain the No. 1 ranking and hold on to it.

Do you have another scenario?

FROM: Jason Sobel More

TO: Bob Harig

Another scenario? Well, yeah. It's the one in which a guy who will have nearly 12 months of winless tournaments on his record for the next year can't overcome that points loss and doesn't regain the honor for a very long time.

As we've seen throughout most of 2010, Woods has basically been able to tread water and maintain the No. 1 ranking, thanks to his previous accomplishments. But those six wins from 2009 will gradually be erased from those counted toward his ranking, which means that if he wants to get back to that position, he'll need to once again play great golf and win. I'm not saying it can't happen, but a recurrence of this past season won't only leave him short of the top spot, it could push him outside of the top 10. Now there's a scenario for you.

FROM: Bob Harig More

TO: Jason Sobel

And that scenario would be really tough to comprehend, but not out of the question, especially if Tiger fails to get back to winning.

As you pointed out, his finishes from 2009 will be of little value as he progresses through the 2011 season. He'll need to start contending, even winning, if he is to climb back to No. 1. A lot will also depend on what Westwood, Kaymer and Mickelson do. If any of them rattles off a few victories, the gap will widen.

We all know that Tiger has been No. 1 for 281 straight weeks, dating to 2005. The last time he wasn't even No. 2? This same week in 2004, when he dropped behind Vijay Singh and Ernie Els.

FROM: Jason Sobel More

TO: Bob Harig

That's a good history lesson. Those who are either new to the game or simply have short memories will contend that this latest news signifies the downfall of Tiger. But as you said, it's happened before.

And really, if -- as we discussed earlier -- the world ranking was a poll instead of an algorithm, Woods would have dropped from No. 1 long ago. The computers are finally starting to catch up to popular opinion.

Then again, I wonder how much these guys actually care about it. Mickelson repeatedly maintained that it was important only because it proved that hard work was paying off; he consistently said that every golfer competes in order to be the best and if being No. 1 meant he was the best, then he wanted to ascend to that spot.

But I've got to believe that Woods is more worried about Stanford's ranking in football right now than his own ranking. Neither he nor Mickelson -- or Kaymer, for that matter -- would ever trade a major title for the top spot. That's not an option Westwood even has, but you and I both know he'd give up his current position for one of those majors he missed out on winning.

FROM: Bob Harig More

TO: Jason Sobel

The No. 1 ranking means … what? Bragging rights. A topic of conversation. Frankly, the entire world ranking system leaves a lot to be desired and is really only of value if you are hyperventilating trying to stay in the top 50 in the world.

That distinction -- depending on the time of the year -- matters to the people at the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open. The top 100 is a distinction -- although not written down anywhere -- for the PGA Championship.

Other than that? It is used to seed the 64 players for the WGC-Match Play and is among the criteria for the other WGCs. For Tiger, I'm guessing it means absolutely nothing at this point. He certainly isn't going to sweat the intricacies of the ranking system. He has always said winning takes care of everything.

Can he get back to No. 1? It's all about the W's.

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