SHANGHAI – The first encounter between Lee Westwood and Tiger Woods since they switched spots at the top of the world ranking was not exactly the momentous occasion some thought it might be.
A pair of photographers crouched into position on the far end of the range at Sheshan International, where Westwood was quietly hitting wedges and Woods was quickly approaching from the putting green.
“Westy … Billy,” Woods called out to the new No. 1 and his caddie, Billy Foster.
He never stopped walking.
“Tiger,” Westwood responded, turning his head briefly before settling over his next shot.
They have been friends for as long as they have been on their respective tours, and the exchange was similar to countless others. The only difference was the pecking order in the world ranking, and even that comes with a dose of perspective.
Being No. 1 in the world is a big deal to Westwood, as it should be. On the home page of his website is a photo of him standing before a map of the world, cradling a globe and holding up the No. 1 sign.
“Whenever you can sit down and say, ‘I’m the best in the world right now,’ it’s a dream that everybody holds,” he said.
Losing the No. 1 ranking is not a big deal to Woods, nor should it be.
He had been at the top for a record 281 consecutive weeks. A year ago, it looked like he might be there for the rest of his career until his personal life and his golf game imploded. The only surprise for Woods is that it took this long for someone to replace him.
“To be No. 1 in the world, you have to win regularly,” Woods said. “And I haven’t done that lately.”
All of that can change this week at the HSBC Champions, and not just between them.
The top of golf is so crowded at the moment that four players– Westwood, Woods, PGA champion Martin Kaymer and Masters champion Phil Mickelson– could get to No. 1 this week without even winning. If Steve Stricker and Jim Furyk had come over to China for this World Golf Championship, they also would have had a shot at No. 1.
It’s possible that the highest finisher among Westwood, Woods and Kaymer will go to No. 1 in the world, provided they’re in the top 20.
Golf is no longer about birdies and bogeys these days. It requires a calculator.
To kick off the festivities this week, the latest version of the “Big Four” gathered on Shanghai’s riverfront and touched swords in a photo opportunity to depict what organizers hope will be an epic battle for No. 1.
But that’s just this week.
All four players realize that this battle will continue after Shanghai and stretch into Singapore, Australia, Dubai, South Africa and California at tournaments they play the rest of the year.
This business of No. 1 isn’t likely to be settled anytime soon.
“It could – to really, definitively know – take a year,” Hunter Mahan said. “We’re all waiting for Tiger to get back to where he has been. This year, he had some stuff to go through. But when he gets that straightened out, we expect him to be as good as ever.”
That remains to be seen.
This is the 10th time in his career that Woods was replaced atop the world ranking. Historically, he doesn’t lose the No. 1 spot as much as he loans it out. But he has never been as unpredictable as he is now.
And while interest in America tends to peak when Woods is demolishing his competition, it becomes fascinating worldwide with four players whose ranking average is separated by less than a half-point.
“This could be very exciting for the game,” Westwood said.
The top spot changed hands 10 times between Seve Ballesteros and Greg Norman over a three-year period in the late 1980s. This is more reminiscent of 1997, when four players – Woods, Norman, Ernie Els and Colin Montgomerie – were all in the hunt for No. 1 around the U.S. Open at Congressional.
The first time Woods was No. 1, it lasted a week before he was replaced by Els, who was supplanted by Norman a week later, and then it went back to Woods. It rotated among those three over the next year before Woods took over.
Woods, though, has been No. 1 for so long – all but 32 weeks since the 1999 PGA Championship – that to suddenly see so many other players in the mix has given many more belief that it can be done.
Consider the case of Westwood. Woods had a lead that was nearly triple in the world ranking a year ago, yet Westwood still managed to overtake him despite winning only twice, neither of them a major. He was consistently better than anyone else, with two runner-up finishes in the majors, a tie for fourth in The Players Championship, nine top 10s and only one missed cut.
“It gives everyone hope,” Mahan said. “It’s been a long time since someone other than Tiger Woods has been ranked No. 1. Obviously, we all know it’s possible in a sense. It just takes good play, and some good luck.”
The good luck in this case was Woods’ misfortunes, all of it his own doing.
The question now is how quickly he can put his game back together, and whether he can get back to the level he once was when Woods was winning nearly half of the tournaments he entered.
Even at No. 2 – and he could slip to No. 4 by the end of the week – Woods still seems to be the one dictating the action.
Westwood was asked Sunday evening if he still considered Woods’ his main rival, or if he thought the challenge more likely would come the growing pack of youngsters, either someone like Kaymer, Dustin Johnson or Rory McIlroy.
“I wouldn’t write Tiger off as quickly as that,” Westwood said. “I certainly wouldn’t. He’s proved that time and time again when he’s gone away and comes back.”