No. 1 on the line at The Players ... and, yes, it matters


PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. - Four different players are capable of overtaking Tiger Woods for No. 1 on the Official World Golf Ranking this week and …

I know what you're thinking: Who cares?

Who cares about which player claims the top spot because of a mathematical algorithm that would leave NASA confused? Who cares about a ranking in which these contenders could only unseat the current No. 1 because he's injured? Who cares that three of the four could essentially win something this week without winning anything at all? (Click here for full world rankings)

And I totally agree with you – well, I totally did agree with you. Until I asked the players involved and uncovered some valuable information.

They care. That's who.

“It would be the same as the green jacket,” said recent Masters champion Bubba Watson.

“Of course it would be a nice thing to put on your [resume],” Henrik Stenson declared.

“To be No. 1 in the world at anything is amazing,” agreed Matt Kuchar.

Those three players, along with second-ranked Adam Scott, each have an opportunity at this week’s Players Championship to become the 17th different No. 1 player in the 28-year history of the world ranking.

Here’s your handy breakdown: Scott needs to finish in a two-way tie for 16th or better; Stenson needs a two-way tie for sixth or better; Watson needs a solo second place or a win; Kuchar needs a victory – and each of them could be affected by the other three.

(In a mathematical quirk of eye-rolling proportions, Scott could become No. 1 if he wakes up Thursday morning and decides not to play. “See you later, guys,” he laughed when informed of that peculiarity. “Good to see you.”)

Welcome to the reformation of the OWGR Era. Much like the period from early-2011 to mid-2012, when the top spot traded hands 11 times between four different players (Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer, Luke Donald and Rory McIlroy) during Woods’ blue period, we appear on the verge of another revolving door swinging back and forth each week.

Such a development helps with talk-show fodder as the “real best player” gets consistently debated against the power of the algorithm.

Fair enough. But that doesn’t devalue what that one little number in front of a player’s name would mean to him personally.

“It's a cool thing about the game of golf at the moment; that title is a pretty impressive title,” Kuchar said. “To have a chance to be No. 1 in the world in the game of golf, I think all of us that play have those dreams. I think all of us that are out here are dreaming of being No. 1.”

For these players, the opportunity is there to join a club so exclusive that in the past quarter-century, the likes of Padraig Harrington, Davis Love III, Jim Furyk and, yes, even Phil Mickelson haven’t been included.

“We've seen Phil Mickelson, who is arguably top‑five best of all time, and he's never been No. 1,” Watson said. “That would just show me that the rankings are kind of messed up if Bubba Watson has been No. 1 and Phil Mickelson has never been No. 1.”

Such is the brave, new world of the No. 1 ranking.

Anyone taking advantage of Woods’ absence following back surgery can likewise thank him. When the year began, he owned 11.48 average points, more than two full points ahead of the next-closest competitor. Now, after a disappointing start that saw him fail to finish better than 25th in four appearances, he owns 8.26 average points and leads by a mere two-tenths of a point.

“If I compare my best game with Tiger’s best game, I would always put his a little higher, what he achieved over such a long period of time,” maintained Stenson. “I know I can beat him; I did that in Atlanta [at last year’s Tour Championship] when I gave him a pretty good beating in the first round, when my game was really good and he wasn’t playing his best.

“I know I can beat the best players when I’m playing my best and that’s good enough for me – whether I’m ranked (No.) 1 or 3 or 7.”

Scott, who has the best chance of succeeding Woods, echoed those sentiments.

“I haven't really thought about it too much; I'm really just into the process of trying to get my game better all the time,” he said. “Wins take care of all the rankings and all the questions and I'm really focused on getting myself in contention this week.”

Sure, the No. 1 ranking is just a number. It doesn’t necessarily mean one player is better than another, nor does it mean he’s achieved more than anyone else.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care, though. We should care because they care. It should matter to us because it matters to the players who are trying to reach that pinnacle.

How much? When broached with that scenario this week, Watson thought about the prospect of reaching No. 1 and joked that if it happens, “I’ll retire.”

He then demurred: “Well, maybe not.” After all, the way things are looking on the world ranking right now, prosperity is a fleeting prospect.