Is There Truly a No. 1 Golfer Right Now?

Richard Leivenberg@@richiemarketingContributor IIIJune 21, 2013

ARDMORE, PA - JUNE 16:  Tiger Woods of the United States hits his tee shot on the fifth hole during the final round of the 113th U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club on June 16, 2013 in Ardmore, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

Based on sheer numbers derived by the Official World Golf Ranking, Tiger Woods has earned the right to be the No. 1 player in the world.  But with the way he is playing currently, does he deserve to be there? 

If this were a voting proposition rather than one based on a numerical ranking service, would you name Tiger No. 1 right now?  And if not Tiger, then who?

How about no one?  When you view the current list of top golfers, is anyone playing like the best in the world?  Does anyone come to mind immediately as playing so great that he demands our attention?  It seems as if the current top-ranked golfers are all a bunch of wannabes looking to find their game.

With the U.S. Open firmly behind us, the Official World Golf Ranking, which puts Woods, Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose, Adam Scott and Matt Kuchar as its top five, does not give a clear picture of the current landscape.

What is so disappointing is that there is so much talent on the tour—Matt Kuchar, Jason Day, Brandt Snedeker, Charl Schwartzel, Hunter Mahan, Luke Donald, Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson, to name a few—who have the ability to usurp Tiger.  These guys are young and strong and have played enough golf on the world stage to rise to the top. 

Yet they all have one thing in common: a disease called “Major-itus.”  All have been so close to winning a major, and none have risen to the task.  While winning a major is not the only gauge of a No. 1 player, it does provide the gut check necessary to claim the crown.

There exists a very real distinction between the World Golf Ranking, which is an intricate scoring system based purely on performance, and the intangibles that a true No. 1, the best player in the world, evokes.  The ranking rubric includes 40 tournaments held over a two-year period with points awarded for each event maintained for a 13-week period.    

But what does it say about a player’s intimidation factor?

How do we know LeBron James is the best player in the world?  Is it just because his team won the championship?  No. When he plays, he takes over, dominates the competition and changes the game.

Tiger used to do that, but now he is more fallible.  Even though he has won four times this season, his last two events have been disastrous.  It has been five long and tumultuous years since he has won a major.

In his last two events, Woods finished tied for 65th at the Memorial and tied for 32th at the Open. Leading up to the Open, he was the odds-on, across-the-board favorite to win his 15th major despite his poor showing at the Memorial, which makes his fall from grace that much more difficult to fathom.

Now, he has opted out of the self-sponsored AT&T National due to his elbow strain, the injury that probably impaired his play in the last two events. 

There was a time when Tiger intimidated the field like no one before him.  He struck fear in the competition because of his unmatched desire to win.  If he was in the lead at the end of a tournament, it was game over.

That is what we expect of the No. 1 player, but Tiger is unable to engender such fear today, which is why there exists a very palpable void on the current list of top players. 

The door is swinging wide open for a new king, but no one seems to come to mind.

Take Rory McIlroy, for instance.  No one else may want him.  He is missing in action, playing horrible golf and throwing tantrums on the course.  But only last year, he was the heir apparent, dominating the field.  He had four wins and 11 top-10 finishes.  By August, he had usurped Luke Donald as No. 1 in the world ranking.  There was nothing to stop him from being the next Tiger—except himself.

In January, he was still No. 1, and by March he had slipped to the second spot, where he still resides.  Numbers do not tell the full story.  While he has four top-10 finishes this year, he has no wins, and we know how he performed on the big stages at the Masters (T25) and the Open (T41 and one bent club).

But he is still only 24. And of all the golfers playing today, he seemingly has the game to return to the top spot.  Would you put him there today?

McIlroy’s plight is symbolic of what plagues the field.  Players are not rising to the occasion when it is most needed.

It is just not the numbers but also the quality of play that is disconcerting.  It is also the mental psyche of these so-called best players.  Where is the fight in them?  In watching the Open, the pressure just seemed so great that it impaled one after another on his hybrid.

Adam Scott, who has been ranked third the last few months and is now in fourth place, surely looks the part.  The Masters winner has calmed his demons and, with his sure and long driving coupled with his mastery of the belly putter, has the golfing skills to rule the world.

Yet he crumpled at the Open, barely making the cut, then finishing in a very un-kingly tie for 45.

Kuchar had the hottest stick rolling into the Open.  He has won twice this season, including the Memorial, and he possesses the type of cool, calm and straight-shooting game that usually wins at an Open venue.  Call him the new Jim Furyk without the hitch in his swing.

If you are a fan of the sport, you are surely frustrated by the performance of Kuchar at Merion, where he finished tied for 28.  It gives one pause at the concept of him actually being No. 1.  Does he have what it takes?

Do you in fact need the swagger of a Tiger or the innate talent of a McIlroy to get there?

On paper, Donald has all the skills in the world, but he has never converted in a major, where one really assert one's dominance in golf.  As a former No. 1 ranked player, he has been consistently inconsistent and, worse, has never been a force to be reckoned with.

If this were a personality contest, then vets like Phil Mickelson, Steve Stricker or Ernie Els would rightfully be voted best player in the world.  Each defied his age by almost winning at Merion.

Most notably, it was Mickelson who had the best opportunity.  He played out of his mind for 54 holes, then forgot how to hit a fairway.  Phil knows what it is like to be No. 1 in the world, but that position is now in his rear-view mirror.

The 46-year-old Stricker, who might change his name to “Stricken,” gave all of us weekend duffers the chills when he shanked his ball into the woods after a poor drive.  The long quest for a major just may not be in his future.

The younger players could learn a lot from a guy like Els, who actually would be a good pick for the top spot.  He simply knows how to play when the money is on the line.  He tied for 13 at the Masters and shot up the leaderboard on the last day of the Open to finish in a tie for fourth.  Last year, if you recall, he won the Open Championship at 43 years old.

It is not Els’ numbers that are so impressive but his grit and guile.  That is what you want in a No. 1 player, a guy who will not back down to anyone and who will not only not succumb to the pressure of the moment but actually seek it out.

Ultimately, the World Golf Ranking is about numbers, and specifically wins, so Tiger’s reign may not be in jeopardy right now.

That is, unless a guy like Rose steps up.  The Open champion sits in third place in the rankings, having moved up from fifth after his stellar win.

He is not a fluke, with a record that includes five top-10 finishes this year, his excellent play at last year’s Ryder Cup and at least one win in the last three years.  He is playing at the top of his game.  He has begun his run to the top of the field.

The only question is whether he has what it takes to get there.

And if not him, then who?


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