Tiger Woods Losing World No.1 Spot Is a Reason To Reflect, Not Criticize
So, Tiger Woods is no longer the world's No.1 golfer. Add that to the pile of sticks with which we can continue to beat him.
Add that to the list of sporting milestones we might only fully appreciate in years to come.
Defending Tiger—let alone sympathising with him or even praising him—is hardly popular in the current climate. His personal scandal might have broken about a year ago, but it continues to cloud his every move in the public eye and cloud our ability to properly consider his ongoing achievements.
Losing the world No.1 spot, especially to a good but unspectacular player such as Lee Westwood, has seemingly only given media and fans alike another chance to point and laugh at the 34-year-old.
But the culmination of a run of five years as the undisputed best player on the planet should be an opportunity for reflection—not ridicule. If it wasn't for the events of his personal life in recent times, it's hard to imagine we wouldn't be lauding the end of a spectacular run of individual supremacy.
At times like this, perhaps sports should be better at ignoring such external factors.
Since winning back the top spot from an on-form and virtual tournament ever-present Vijay Singh in June 2005, Tiger has held a Darth Vader-like choke-hold on the rankings. Since then, he's also had to deal with the sort of challenge many critics pointed out he never had—multiple major champions (Phil Mickelson, Padraig Harrington) and serious injury—and still managed to stay out in front.
All this while continuing to play the leanest schedule of any of his peers. On the rare occasions he came to play, Tiger came to win. More often than not, he did. And that was enough to cement his status as the best in the game.
But now, for the first time in over half a decade, he isn't. Tiger's run of success eventually ended at 281 weeks—more than any other golfer, with the exception of Greg Norman, has spent in total at the top of the world. His first streak ended at 264 weeks. He has now spent almost 12 years as the best in the world.
That's an incredible record, regardless of his recent personal disgrace.
After all that, his demise has been as abrupt as his dominance has been elongated. Due to the highly publicised external factors, he played just 12 PGA Tour events (his shortest schedule since the injury-ravaged 2008 season), with solid but far from spectacular results.
Westwood might point proudly at his consistently amassed second and third place finishes as the evidence of his rise, but the simple fact is this: Tiger's demise is entirely self-inflicted.
Tiger isn't Brett Favre—America's other polarising sportsman—his record run hasn't gone on longer than perhaps it should. If anything, it's been cut down ahead of time.
Let's think about that briefly. The longest run at the top of the sport's rankings has been brought down by the man himself. And we want to attack him for that?
Since his SUV infamously crashed in November last year, Tiger's game has—one breathtaking third-round performance at this year's US Open and a Ryder Cup singles evisceration of Francesco Molinari apart—practically disappeared. Part of that is through lack of practice (he took the best of three months away from the game to enter rehab and let the scandal run its course) and partly due to the ongoing mental strain of his situation.
A messy and public divorce, along with the regular stream of mistresses coming out of the woodwork for their 15 minutes of fame further disgracing his name, has made it impossible for Tiger to reach top form or even the sort of form that would have allowed him to retain his No.1 spot.
Now he's back in the chasing pack. But that could be exactly the change that galvanises him to return to his former level:
"As far as the world ranking is concerned, yes, I'm not ranked number one in the world," Woods noted upon the rankings change, in the non-committal manner that has become a feature of his post-scandal press interactions.
"In order to do that you have to win and I didn't win this year. As far as the emotions go, it is what it is.
"I've got three more events this year and, hopefully, I can end on a good note. I'm really looking forward to these events and hopefully they will spearhead into a better 2011."
Deservedly enjoying his current status on the top of the world, Westwood knows better than any how to come back from adversity in this game. After a banner year in 2000, the Englishman's ranking dropped to 266 in 2001 as his game fell apart.
"It wasn't much fun. I hit rock bottom and you have to work your way back up," Westwood told the BBC upon the announcement of his ascension.
"I stripped it all down and got back to basics. Mentally your confidence takes a blow and you have to build yourself back up.
"In golf, confidence breeds good play and good play brings confidence. It's a vicious circle."
If he managed to make it back to the summit after that sort of slump, what real obstacles are there preventing Tiger returning to his former spot?
After all, it's worth remembering the Florida native is still only 34. Golf is a rarity among professional sport in that you can continue to improve well into your forties. Westwood himself is 37 and still believes he is more than capable of going on to win that Major championship that currently eludes him.
If Tiger gets his head right and gets his motivation to succeed back, then there is no reason he can't be back to the top spot within the next 12 months—if not sooner.
With Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 Majors still a target, there is also no reason why Tiger (currently on 14) can't embark on another five-year run at the top of the rankings. As a golfer, he should still be in his prime; Nicklaus himself won six of his Major titles after turning 35.
Westwood is No. 1 now, but Tiger isn't finished. This might be the end of one era, but it could easily just be the start of another.
The theme of the first was dominance. The theme of the second might end up being redemption.
Either way, we'd be wise to properly acknowledge the unprecedented run of sporting dominance that has just come to an end—whether it be permanently or temporarily.
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