Tiger Woods is still the only name engraved on the trophy.
Along with his 14 majors, 82 official victories and more than $100 million in earnings worldwide, Woods’ dominance of his generation is reflected in the world ranking. Dating to the 1998 U.S. Open at Olympic Club, he has been at the top 93 percent of the time.
David Duval took it away from him by winning The Players Championship in 1999 and stayed there for 14 weeks. Five years later, Vijay Singh replaced Woods at No. 1 by beating him at the TPC Boston for one of his nine victories that year. Singh finished the final four months at No. 1 – not long enough to win the McCormack Award – and didn’t give it back until Woods won the Masters the next April.
Phil Mickelson appears to be next in line.
The Masters champion needs only to win Colonial this week to become the 13th player to occupy No. 1 since McCormack, the late founder of IMG, devised the ranking system in 1986. Colonial is more meaningful than ever for Mickelson, for it was last year when the tournament staged a “Pink Out” to support his wife, Amy, who had just learned she had breast cancer.
Mickelson has never been No. 1 at anything in a career that has been second to one. Despite his 40 worldwide victories and four majors, he has never won the money list, Player of the Year, the FedEx Cup, the Vardon Trophy or reached No. 1 in the world.
If it doesn’t happen at Colonial, it figures to happen soon. A change at the top seems inevitable, more because of what’s going on with Woods – chaos in his personal life, back-to-back weeks out of the money for the first time – than with Lefty.
What makes this amazing is how quickly it changed.
Even after Mickelson won the Tour Championship last September, Woods’ average was nearly twice as high.
But the longer Woods stayed away from golf while dealing with the fallout from his infidelity, the more points he lost. Mickelson took a big step by winning at Augusta National, his only victory this year, and finishing second alone at Quail Hollow with a birdie on the last hole.
What makes this different from previous times that Woods gave up the No. 1 ranking is that if Mickelson fails to catch him soon, there’s no shortage of players right behind him.
Lee Westwood of England is No. 3, not quite in range but getting closer. He has finished no worse than third in the last three majors, and he appears to have figured out how to play his best golf in the biggest events. Steve Stricker is No. 4, although Colonial will be his first tournament since the Masters because of a chest injury. Jim Furyk, a two-time winner this year, is next at No. 5.
“Tiger’s performance and schedule and things like that are unpredictable at the moment, aren’t they?” Westwood said last week. “We have all seen that the last few weeks. Phil is obviously a world-class player and has already won a major this year, but you know, his performances are very much up-and-down as well.
“I suppose No. 2 and No. 1 are more achievable than they have been in the last few years.”
Ian Poulter, who is No. 6, was quoted in a British golf magazine a few years ago as saying that when he reaches his potential, it will be him and Woods at the top of the ranking. But is it a given that Woods will be there at the end of the year?
“I can see anybody in the top 10 in the world – if they play great for a spell of three, four months, have a couple of wins and a couple of big finishes – certainly get to the points that Tiger is at now, for sure,” Poulter said.
One thing hasn’t changed. Losing the No. 1 ranking depends more on Woods than the players chasing him.
The other two times Woods lost his No. 1 ranking, he was revamping his game. He won only two tournaments in 1998, and when the changes with Butch Harmon finally took hold, Duval had passed him in the spring of ’99. Woods reclaimed No. 1 for good by winning the PGA Championship that year at Medinah, and he kept it for the next 264 weeks.
Woods was going through a swing change with Hank Haney for most of 2004 when he won only two tournaments. Those changes kicked in at the end of that year, and Woods left everyone behind in 2005 with seven victories (including two majors) and five runner-up finishes. He has been No. 1 for 259 consecutive weeks going into the Colonial.
Woods made it sound as though he was going through more swing changes at The Players Championship, and that figures to be the case now that he and Haney no longer are working together. It remains a mystery who – if anyone – will be Woods’ next swing coach.
In the meantime, No. 1 is up for grabs.
Mickelson is in the best position to seize this opportunity. And if it takes Woods more than a year to sort out his personal life and his game, there might finally be another name to be engraved on the McCormack Award.