Golf has a new question, one familiar to other sports but a question that golf hasn't had to ask for more than a decade: Who's No. 1?
Nothing was really settled last week in Shanghai at the HSBC Champions, the PGA Tour's toe-in-the-water foray into the potentially lucrative Asian market. Lee Westwood of England arrived with his new No. 1 ranking, having ended the 281-week reign of Tiger Woods, and left with it too, after his fourth runner-up finish of 2010.
This was our first look at golf's postapocalyptic world—that is, Golf After the Fall of Tiger. The realization that someone other than Woods may possibly be the Man is a scary thought. Golf is like Linus without his security blanket.
In Shanghai, Woods, Phil Mickelson and Martin Kaymer of Germany could have snatched the top spot from Westwood. Steve Stricker and Jim Furyk potentially could have too, if they had played. Thanks mainly to Woods's well-documented off-course troubles, the players at the top of the World Ranking are bunched like an Indy 500 field barreling into the first turn.
Westwood reinforced his status as golf's new leader (and his reputation as a weak closer) by losing a spirited duel to Francesco Molinari of Italy by a shot. Molinari finished at 19-under-par 269. Woods, winless in a season for the first time in 15 years as a pro, was 13 shots back.
Men's golf hasn't seen parity like this since the late 1980s. The sport has always relied on superstars for its popularity. Parity hasn't packed much of a punch. For instance, we've had no repeat winners in the last eight majors, and six of those champions won their first major. Did anyone get googly-eyed over Lucas Glover, Y.E. Yang, Graeme McDowell or Louis Oosthuizen bagging a major?
During the Woods era any seven-year-old could have figured out who was the best player. Tiger held the top spot for a total of 623 weeks, but now with No. 1 up for grabs, some wonder why two years' worth of results should count in the World Ranking formula. What's relevant now about what happened in December 2008? The fact that it took the slumping Woods all year to slip from first to second should be a red flag.
If only this year's results were used, Kaymer would be No. 1 and Woods would plummet to 57th (chart, right). Then again, proof that 12 months aren't enough of a baseline is provided by Luke Donald of England, a nice little player who somehow amassed the third biggest stash of Ranking points this year. Regardless, the system needs a tweak.
Kaymer is the most logical candidate to be the next long-term No. 1. The 25-year-old wunderkind has eight victories in the last three seasons, including the PGA Championship and three others this year. In Shanghai he said, "I think in everybody's head Tiger is still the best player in the world." And at 34 Tiger is still too young to write off. He's rebuilding his swing and his life. But the Ranking says we're not living in Tiger's world anymore. Until he regains what he lost, we have to keep asking: Who's No. 1?
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SHORT GAME The Real No. 1
The Official World Golf Ranking is based on results over a two-year rolling calendar, which explains why Tiger Woods could hang on to the top spot for almost the entire year. Here's how the Ranking would look if it were based solely on this season's play (actual ranking in parentheses).
1. Martin Kaymer (3)
2. Lee Westwood (1)
3. Luke Donald (8)
4. Ernie Els (12)
5. Matt Kuchar (11)
6. Graeme McDowell (10)
7. Phil Mickelson (4)
8. Jim Furyk (6)
9. Dustin Johnson (13)
10. Paul Casey (7)
11. Rory McIlroy (9)
12. Steve Stricker (5)
13. Francesco Molinari (14)
14. Louis Oosthuizen (22)
15. Retief Goosen (18)
57. Tiger Woods (2)
ROSS KINNAIRD/GETTY IMAGES
FIRST CLASS Molinari climbed to 14th in the world, and Westwood (below) stayed on top after another near miss.
PAUL CHILDS/ACTION IMAGES/ REUTERS (WESTWOOD)
[See caption above]
ROSS KINNAIRD/GETTY IMAGES