Who’s Number One? Nobody

published August 9, 2010

Tiger Woods dodged a bullet this week, while spectators were dodging his tee shots.

Woods entered the WGC Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club as number one in the world golf rankings for the 269th consecutive week.  Woods had won seven times on Firestone’s South course, so it seemed likely that if he were ever going to return to form this year, this would be the place.

Wrong.  He opened with a 74, ten shots behind the first-round leader, and followed with 72-75-77 for a 298 total that left him next-to-last in the field.  Hunter Mahan won with a 268, which means he could have given Tiger three a side for the four days and still won handily.

As Larry Dorman noted in the New York Times, Tiger hit more trees (nine) than fairways (seven) on Saturday, en route to a 75 on a day when others recorded a 62, a 63, and two 64s.  He has never looked more defeated, less happy to be in the arena that has been his focus and his cocoon.

Golf is different from other sports, but it’s hard to think of a parallel to the year Woods is having on the course.  Jack Nicklaus was 39 before he went through a season without a victory; Arnold Palmer was 40.  The closest comparison may be Andre Agassi’s 1997 season, when he married Brooke Shields, struggled with a wrist injury, won just twelve matches in thirteen tournaments, fell to number 122 in the rankings, and later confessed to using crystal meth that year.

Yet Tiger remains atop the Official World Golf Rankings*, a standard intended to emphasize recent performance as well as the strength of the field.  This fact reflects how dominant he was back when he was dominant, and what pretenders some of the pretenders to his throne have been.

*Please feel free to skip this attempt at a quick summary: Points are awarded for all tournaments on all significant pro golf Tours around the world.  The scale of points increases based on the number of highly-ranked players in the field. Results in the four majors receive the most points, followed by The PLAYERS Championship, with the European Tour’s BMW PGA Championship also guaranteed a minimum standing.  All points earned over the last 13 weeks count in full; after that, each week’s points are decreased by 1/92 of the original total per week until they disappear completely after two years.  The ranking is expressed as a player’s average points per tournament for the two years, with a minimum divisor of 40 and a maximum of 60.  Don’t blame me if you read this far.

Heading into the Bridgestone at Firestone – different brands, one company – two golfers were poised to pass Tiger if he faltered, as he did so spectacularly.

Lee Westwood could have moved into first place with a victory or second; unfortunately, he arrived at Firestone with a calf injury, and withdrew after the second round, also pulling out of this week’s PGA Championship.  Westwood would have been the first world number-one who never won a major.

Phil Mickelson needed to finish no worse than a tie for fourth to take over the top spot.  He entered the final round in tenth position, but seven bogeys and a double-bogey left him in 46th place after a 78 that equaled the day’s worst round.

It was the eighth consecutive tournament where Phil had a chance to pass Tiger in the rankings, and eighth time he’s fallen short.  “I wanted to have a good weekend and get a little bit of momentum going into the PGA, and I don’t think that that happened,” Mickelson said.  “So I’ll have to kind of do what I did at Augusta, with Houston the week before, I played like this in Houston, and I’m going to have to try to get it turned around here in three days.”

Can’t we just leave the number-one spot vacant until someone plays like he wants it?

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