LOS ANGELES – Jason Day can’t explain the math that makes up the Official World Golf Ranking, but then few can.
What the Australian has no trouble explaining, however, is what it means to him to be atop that mathematical heap.
“They don't give trophies for it,” smiled Day, who has held the top spot for 51 weeks. “It is more of a pride thing at the end of your career - you want to know how many weeks you were at No. 1. To get there even for one week is pretty special.”
Day initially held the top spot for just a single week in 2015 after winning the BMW Championship, and he retook the No. 1 ranking last March with his victory at the WGC-Dell Match Play and has been there ever since.
Most players grow up dreaming of rolling in the winning putt at Augusta National in April or weathering a summer storm to hoist the claret jug in July, but for Day every potential version of success included his name etched first atop the world ranking.
It has driven him through a difficult adolescence and more injuries than he cares to admit as an adult. Earlier this year he went so far as to say that holding the No. 1 ranking from January to December was the ultimate goal, but that seems certain to be challenged.
Although Day’s lead in the ranking over No. 2 Rory McIlroy has remained about the same, roughly a half-point, since his victory last May at The Players, other would-be kings like Johnson and Matsuyama have slowly cut into his advantage and set up what could be a volatile spring for the top players.
It’s also set up an interesting question for Day, who was slowed late last year by injury.
“My whole goal in life was to get to No. 1 in the world, get to No. 1,” he said Tuesday at the Genesis Open. “Where do you go now, you know what I mean? You've got to keep pushing forward and trying to find a way to stay there.”
There’s no doubt Day has learned how to separate what it takes to get to the top of the world ranking, and the motivation that quest generates, from the actual accomplishment. There are, as he said, no trophies doled out to the world No. 1.
But investing that much energy into being the top dog brings a physical and emotional toll and is often out of a player’s control. Golf is fickle - sometimes a bad bounce or poor weather draw can cost even the most prepared player a title, and that uncertainty is compounded by the subjective math of the world ranking.
Day’s desire to make the most of the math is understandable, endearing even, and considering his play the last few years it’s difficult to second-guess. But the world ranking can be an unforgiving accomplice that is often decided by elements outside of a player’s control.
Motivation comes in all manner of shapes and sizes, from incremental gains in putting or wedge play to finishes in the game’s biggest events. For Day the world ranking has proven to be a compelling source of inspiration, but for how long?