World Golf Rankings: Who's the Best No. 1 Player of All-Time?
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Started in 1986, the World Golf rankings have unofficially crowned the title for the “Best Player in the World” on any given week. With 1309 weeks having passed since its inception, it’s quite amazing to think that only 14 players have risen to the No. 1 ranking in the last 24 years. But when Tiger Woods and Greg Norman take up 954 of those weeks, I guess that doesn’t leave much room for anyone else to step up and take the title.
For example, the following is a list of players who have never held the No. 1 ranking. Phil Mickelson, who has finished in the top 10 every year but one, since 1996 and has 4 major titles; Padraig Harrington, who won both the British Open and the PGA in 2008; Payne Stewart; Jose Maria Olazabal; Paul Azinger; Davis Love III; Curtis Strange, who won back-to-back U.S. Opens in the late 1980s; and Mark O’Meara, who won both the Masters and the British Open in 1998.
After a rule change to make the rankings more receptive of finishes from the prior 52 weeks, the World Golf ranking is more volatile. Over the last few months, the world No. 1 ranking has changed hands more than any other time in history. Last week, world No. 3 Luke Donald had an opportunity to take over the No. 1 ranking with only three career worldwide wins. Donald lost in a playoff in South Carolina, and Lee Westwood took back the No. 1 ranking from Martin Kaymer when he won the Indonesian Masters. Order was restored.
This scenario prompted a bit of debate as to whether he was “worthy” of the No. 1 ranking or if he would be the “worst” No. 1 ranked player of all-time, which got me to thinking. As of today, out of all the No. 1 players, who accomplished the least—and most—throughout their career?
Note: The World Golf rankings consider wins on the PGA, European, Asian, Japan, Australasian, and Sunshine Tours.
14. Tom Lehman
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Weeks at No. 1: One.
Wins that count in the World Golf rankings: Seven.
Majors: The 1996 British Open.
Personally, I really like Tom Lehman. He always seemed like a great guy, always seemed to be hanging around, and if he was in contention you pulled for him to win.
When I saw that he only has seven wins in a professional career that started in 1982, I was shocked. But you have to give the man credit—when he won, he won some big tournaments. He took the Memorial tournament in 1994, Colonial in 1995, and the Tour championship in 1996.
Lehman's biggest moment came when he won the 1996 British Open by two shots over Mark McCumber and Ernie Els. He rose to the No. 1 ranking shortly thereafter in April 1997, largely in part to the win at the Open and the Tour championship.
But perhaps reflective of why he's ranked No. 14 out of 14 on this list, is one week later Lehman gave the No. 1 title right back to Greg Norman and never sniffed the spot again.
13. Martin Kaymer
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Weeks at No. 1: Eight.
Wins that count in the World Golf rankings: Nine.
Majors: The 2010 PGA championship.
Only 26-years-old, Kaymer certainly has the potential to vault up these rankings over the course of his career. However, for the time being he's stuck at No. 13.
Kaymer burst onto the worldwide golf scene with his coming-out party, the 2010 PGA championship at Whistling Straits. He benefited from Nick Watney blowing a three-shot lead and Dustin Johnson's Bunkergate—DJ's second major collapse of the year. Kaymer won in a three-hole playoff over Bubba Watson to take Germany's first major championship since Bernhard Langer's 1993 Masters title.
Kaymer, who cites former No. 1 ranked player Langer as his greatest golf inspiration, wrestled the No. 1 ranking away from Lee Westwood after a red-hot six-month run after the PGA. He won the European Tour's KLM Open in September by four shots, then took the prestigious Alfred Dunhill Links championship at St. Andrews by three shots in October.
After winning his third Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf championship in January 2011 (he also won there in 2008 and 2010), Kaymer rose to the No. 1 ranking a month later following his loss in the Accenture Match Play championship match to Luke Donald.
Kaymer lost his No. 1 ranking this week, but he should stay confident. The man has a bright future, and we should all expect great things from him.
12. Lee Westwood
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Weeks at No. 1: 18.
Wins that count in the World Golf rankings: 31 (his World Match Play championship title did not count at the time).
Now, I know what some of you are saying. "Westwood hasn't won a major and only has two PGA Tour wins, so he should be last on the list." I say that's a bunch of B.S. When you look at his body of work, he deserves to be at No. 12.
Westwood has been a perennial contender for the European Order of Merit title since 1996 when he won his first professional title, the Volvo Scandinavian Masters. He continued to be a dominant force in the game of golf, rising to No. 3 in the world during a five-win season in 2000.
However, Westwood dropped off the face of the map after 2000, falling out of the top 200 in the World Golf rankings. He later cited a swing change as the reason for his missteps.
Westwood burst back onto the scene in the 2002 Ryder Cup when he paired with Sergio Garcia to win three of their four matches together. He resurrected his career, steadily improving. He won twice in 2007 and twice in 2009, finally taking over the No. 1 ranking in October 2010 following four out of five top three finishes in the majors.
He remains a threat to win every single week, and has been one of the game's most consistent players over the past three years. While he may not own a major title, my guess is one is coming soon.
11. David Duval
David Duval at the 2001 British Open
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Weeks at No. 1: 15.
Wins that count in the World Golf rankings: 14.
Majors: The 2001 British Open.
As any golf fan knows, David Duval's golf game has fallen on hard times. He is winless since 2001, and hasn't even contended for a title except for his exciting move into Sunday contention at the 2009 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black.
While his record may not have been impressive as of late, golf fans forget just how dominant Duval was from October 1997 to April 1999. With the exception of Tiger's 2000 season, this may be the greatest stretch of golf ever.
Duval won three times in 2007 starting in October, including the Tour championship. "Shades" followed it up with four more wins in 1998, including a World Series of Golf championship over Phil Mickelson. Finally, in 1999, Duval racked up four championships by April, which included The Players championship and one of the best rounds in golf history—a 59 on Sunday to win the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic.
He held the No. 1 ranking on two separate occasions in 1999 after that stretch. Keep in mind, this run of titles started right at the start of Tiger's reign of dominance over the golf world.
The only knock on Duval was that he didn't win a major. But after eight top ten finishes from the 1998 Masters until the 2001 U.S. Open, Duval finally broke through in the 2001 British Open at Royal Lytham and St. Annes for his only major victory.
Unfortunately from there, back issues and bouts with vertigo derailed his golf career. But for three years, Duval deserved his No. 1 ranking as he put together a run that makes him worthy of No. 11 on this list.
10. Ian Woosnam
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Weeks at No. 1: 50.
Wins that count in the World Golf rankings: 32.
Majors: The 1991 Masters.
The Welshman is one of the members of the so-called "Big Five" European players—four of which are on this list—who dominated the game of golf from the early 1980s through the early 1990s.
He won an astounding 15 times on the European Tour from 1987 to 1991, culminating in a one-shot victory over Jose Maria Olazabal. This win pushed "Woosie" to No. 1 in the world, and he held the spot from April 1991 until March 1992.
Other than his Masters victory, Woosnam may be best known for his two-shot penalty on the first tee of the 2001 British Open. In contention for the first time in what seemed to be forever, Woosnam stood on the par-3 first on Sunday two shots out of the lead. He stuck his approach shot to a foot. But then he realized that he (or his caddie) forgot to remove the spare driver from the bag before the round, meaning Woosnam violated the 14-club rule.
Woosie never contended for a major again, but it doesn't change the fact that he is one of the best Europeans to ever play the game of golf.
9. Fred Couples
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Weeks at No. 1: 16.
Wins that count in the World Golf rankings: 17.
Majors: The 1992 Masters.
Choosing between Woosnam and Freddy Couples was not an easy task as they both own one major. But in my mind, "Boom-Boom's" other wins put him over the top.
The suave Seattle native has captured the attention of golf fans around the world after turning professional in 1982 after a stellar golf career at the University of Houston. Although he obtained his first victory at the 1983 Kemper Open, Couples validated himself as a professional by winning the 1983 Players championship at the TPC at Sawgrass. Freddy won the Tour's fifth major again in 1996 by four shots over Colin Montgomerie.
A two-time PGA Tour Player of the year, Freddy dominated the game in 1991 and 1992. He won at Riviera in 1992, then took the No. 1 ranking for a week after winning the Nestle Open. He fell back from the top for a week, but was able to reclaim thanks to a lucky break on the 12th at Augusta.
Clinging to a slim lead over Ray Floyd on Sunday, Couples hit a tee shot on the treacherous par-3 that started rolling backward into the water. Miraculously, the ball stopped short on a hill, leading to a spectacular par save and his only major title.
He held the No. 1 ranking for 15 more weeks, then back problems partially derailed his career. But after scaling back his schedule and practice regimen, Freddy has contended in the Masters three times in the last six years. Even though he's primarily playing the Champions Tour, it would be great to see Couples take home another green jacket after 50.
8. Nick Price
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Weeks at No. 1: 44.
Wins that count in the World Golf rankings: 35.
Majors: 1992 PGA, 1994 British Open and PGA championship.
A native of Zimbabwe, Nick Price was one of the game's most dominant players in the early to mid-1990s. He was the PGA Tour's Player of the Year in both 1993 and 1994.
Regarded as one of the best all-around players since the World Golf rankings were created, from 1991 until 1994, Price won 14 times on the PGA Tour. This included three major championships and a Players championship.
After winning the 1994 British Open and PGA, Nick Price held the No. 1 title for 44 straight weeks. Never dominant but always consistent, Price finished in the top ten in major championships from 1982 all the way until 2005.
Price has continued to be an ambassador of the game, and is very active in the course design industry.
7. Vijay Singh
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Weeks at No. 1: 32.
Wins that count in the World Golf rankings: 46.
Majors: 1998 PGA, 2000 Masters, 2004 PGA.
Known as the workaholic of the PGA Tour, the Big Fijian has worked himself into being one of the game's greats.
Vijay established himself as one of the game's players with victories at the 1997 Memorial and the 1998 PGA. But I couldn't bump him higher on this list because Vijay played so many tournaments over the years that he feasted on weak fields. Plus, he really didn't come into his own as a superstar until the 2000s.
But what a 2000s he had. Overcoming career-long putting woes, Vijay won the 2000 Masters by three shots over Ernie Els. He won twice in 2002, including the Tour championship. Then he won four titles in 2003.
Vijay had one of the best seasons in golf history in 2004, winning an astounding nine times. After winning the PGA championship at Whistling Straits in a playoff and the Deutsch Bank championship two weeks later, Singh wrestled the No. 1 ranking away from Tiger Woods for the first time in five years, and took it on two other occasions during his four-win 2005 season.
But Vijay's greatest run may have been during the 2008 FedEx Cup playoffs. After a win at Firestone in late 2008, Singh won the first two FedEx Cup events en route to the $10 million title and his third money list championship. He really hasn't contended in anything since.
No one knows how long Vijay will be able to keep this up. He's 48-years-old, but has 22 PGA Tour victories since turning 40. The Hall of Famer has started to show signs of slowing down, but you can't count out a man who works as hard as he does.
6. Bernhard Langer
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Weeks at No. 1: Three.
Wins that count in the World Golf rankings: 45.
Majors: The 1985 and 1993 Masters.
While Langer may only have two majors, unlike Price and Singh, he appears higher on this list because no one had a lengthier presence in the game of golf since the World Golf rankings were created.
Langer held the No. 1 ranking for the first three weeks of its existence in 1986. One of the best ball-strikers to ever play the game, Langer has had a storied career. The second-winningest European Tour player of all-time, the stoic German was a force to be reckoned with for a generation, winning almost every year from 1980 until 2002.
Langer is a true worldwide ambassador of the game, having won 13 National German Open championships, and titles on the PGA, European, Asian, and Australasian tours. He also played in an astounding 10 Ryder Cups, and captained another.
But Langer's greatest victories, in unremarkable fashion, was at the Masters, mostly because the tournaments weren't that close. He took the green jacket home in 1985 in a two-shot victory over Seve Ballesteros, Ray Floyd, and Curtis Strange. Eight years later he took home the title in a four-shot victory over Chip Beck.
For a man who fought the "yips" throughout most of his career, including a famous yank on the 18th green to give the Americans the victory in the 1991 Ryder Cup, you'd be a fool to say Langer hasn't done well for himself.
5. Ernie Els
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Weeks at No. 1: Nine.
Wins that count in the World Golf rankings: 55.
Majors: 1994 and 1997 U.S. Open, 2002 British Open.
Perhaps the second-most tragic figure in golf history, "The Big Easy" still has one of the sweetest swings in the game. With 55 victories on a variety of tours, Els is one of the most accomplished worldwide players ever, following in the footsteps of his countryman Gary Player.
Now 41-years-old, Els had a professional victory every single year from 1994 to 2008. Els surprised the world with his second professional win in a playoff with Colin Montgomerie at the 1994 U.S. Open at Oakmont, which led to the Rookie of the Year title.
After winning the 1997 U.S. Open at Congressional by one shot over poor Colin Montgomerie, Els rose to the No. 1 ranking for his first of three reigns at the top. But after 1997, Els never found the top of the golf world again.
Els played some of the best golf of his career—and possibly ever—from 2000 until 2004. While he did win the 2002 British Open in a four-man playoff, this period was filled with disappointment for Els. The South African finished in the top 10 in an astonishing 14 of the 20 majors held in the five year period.
Although he won six times, including wins at the Memorial and the World Match Play championship, 2004 was possibly the worst year for Els. He was the victim to Phil Mickelson's back nine charge to win the green jacket at Augusta, and then lost in a playoff to relatively unknown, utility-club magician Todd Hamilton. He will be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame this year.
Els has vowed to rise back to the top of the world of golf. If he were able to do so, his large fanbase would be more than happy to cheer him on.
4. Greg Norman
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Weeks at No. 1: 331.
Wins that count in the World Golf rankings: 68.
Majors: 1986 and 1993 British Opens.
A more tragic champion does not exist in sports. "The Shark" is perhaps the only golfer to be better known for losing major championships than he is for winning them.
Norman holed a putt to force a playoff in the 1984 U.S. Open, but lost to Fuzzy Zoeller in an 18-hold playoff. In 1986, Greg Norman held the lead going into the final round in all four majors. He only walked away with the British Open title. At the next year's Masters, Larry Mize chipped in from off the green to win on the second hole of a sudden death playoff.
In the 1989 Masters, Norman needed to par the 18th to force a playoff, and teed off with a one iron. But as Lee Trevino wisely said, "Not even God can hit a one-iron." Norman made bogey. The same year in the British Open, Mark Calcavecchia sliced his drive waaaaaaaay right on the final hole of a four-hole playoff. Norman hit into a fairway bunker, couldn't get out, and eventually hit the ball out of bounds. Game. Set. Match.
Norman also lost in a playoff at the 1993 PGA, lost a back nine lead at the 1995 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, and lost a Sunday lead at the 2008 British Open at the age of 51. But all this heartbreak paled in comparison to the 1996 Masters, when Norman blew a six-shot lead to Nick Faldo in heartbreaking fashion. It was like watching a tragedy film unravel in front of one's eyes—bogeys on 9-11, and a double bogey on 12.
But what gets lost in Norman's career is just how great he was. Australia's first golf superstar, Norman is the only player to have won the European Order of Merit (1982) and the PGA Tour money title (1986, 1990, 1995).
Norman rose to No. 1 an unbelievable 11 times, over a period spanning from 1986 until 1998. He coasted to his two major championship victories, and won the 1994 Players championship with a record 24-under par score. One of the greatest drivers of the golf ball in the game's history, "The Shark" will always be remembered as the best who never could get it done in the clutch.
3. Nick Faldo
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Weeks at No. 1: 98.
Wins that count in the World Golf rankings: 33.
Majors: The 1987 British Open, 1989 Masters, 1990 Masters and British Open, 1992 British Open, 1996 Masters.
From 1990 to 1994, Faldo rose to the No. 1 ranking on four separate occasions. I contemplated putting Faldo at the No. 2 spot on this list, but when I dug a little deeper I realized there was no way I could do that. The No. 2 player had a longer period of dominance and almost double the number of professional titles. But that wasn't the main reason. What was? Faldo backed into a few of his major titles thanks to some of golf's most famous collapses.
One of the greatest pressure players of all-time, the Englishman is the most accomplished Ryder Cup participant, with 25 points won over the course of 11 events.
Faldo seemed to have a knack for somehow making other players collapse in his presence. In the 1989 Masters, Faldo show a final round 65. He got into a playoff when Scott Hoch missed a two-foot putt to win on the 18th green.
Faldo won back-to-back green jackets the next year when he caught Raymond Floyd on Sunday. In the playoff, Faldo took the title when Floyd yanked his approach shot on the playoff hole into the water left of the 11th green.
Finally, Faldo was the beneficiary of perhaps the most famous collapse in golf history. On Masters Sunday in 1996, Greg Norman stood on the first tee with a six-shot lead. At the end of the day, Faldo shot a stoic 67, Norman shot 78, and the rest was history. Faldo never won again, but six majors is plenty to put him at No. 3 on this list.
2. Seve Ballesteros
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Weeks at No. 1: 61.
Wins that count in the World Golf rankings: 64.
Majors: The 1979 British Open, 1980 Masters, 1983 Masters, 1984 British Open, 1988 British Open.
While hard times have fallen on the great Spaniard due to brain tumor issues, one only needs to look at Seve's fantastic reputation as one of the game's great creative minds to wonder how he got to No. 2.
Bursting onto the scene in the late 1970s after turning professional at age 16, Seve captivated the imagination on the golf course by playing out of seemingly impossible situations, including making the famous parking lot birdie on the way to the 1979 British Open championship.
Seve followed that by winning his first green jacket in a four-shot victory at the 1980 Masters. The slick greens at Augusta suited Seve's game, as his creativity in the short game was his greatest asset. His style of play resonated with many, and Phil Mickelson specifically cites Ballesteros as one of his greatest inspirations in the golf world.
The European Tour's most accomplished player, Ballesteros had a remarkable career. He won on the European Tour every year but one from 1976 until 1995, accumulating six European Order of Merit titles. From 1986 until 1989, Seve and Greg Norman battled for the No. 1 title, with Ballesteros taking the spot on five separate occasions.
Here's hoping to a recovery for Seve, as the golf world would not be the same without him.
1. Tiger Woods
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Weeks at No. 1: 623.
Wins that count in the World Golf rankings: 83.
Majors: 1997 Masters; 1999 PGA; 2000 U.S. Open, British Open, and PGA; 2001 Masters; 2002 Masters and U.S. Open; 2005 Masters and British Open; 2006 British Open and PGA; 2007 PGA; 2008 U.S. Open.
What? You were expecting John Daly? Of course Woods is the greatest player who has ever reached No. 1 in the World Golf rankings. This wasn't even close. He's in contention, if not a shoo-in, for the title of "Best Player Ever."
Tiger's achievements have blown away everyone else on this list. Fourteen majors? Check. Seventy-one PGA Tour wins? Check. Sixteen World Golf championship titles? Check. Holding ALL FOUR major championships at the same time? Check. Say what you want about the man's personal life, but there's no dispute that Tiger is the most dominant player alive, with maybe the exception of Jack Nicklaus.
Tiger first won professionally in 1996, but he truly "arrived" with a 12-shot victory at the 1997 Masters. He didn't exactly stop there. He has held the No. 1 ranking a whopping 10 times, including two separate uninterrupted five-year reigns at the top.
All you need to know is in the following to see why Tiger deserves to be No. 1. Four green jackets. Four PGA championships. Three British Opens. Three U.S. Opens. Seven Bridgestone Invitational titles. Three Accenture Match Play wins. Six Cadillac championships. Four Memorials. A Players championships. Four straight Bay Hill titles. Five BMW championships. Two Tour championships.
Say what you want about the man, but he's defied rational expectations of what a golfer should be. Only time will tell what Tiger's career numbers will be. Tiger has captivated a generation's worth of golfers, and completely changed the course of the history of golf on many levels. His competitive nature, drive to be the best, and unparalleled talent level have made him the greatest No. 1 ranked golfer of all-time.