A Game of Hot Potato


For just the second time in 11½ years, Tiger Woods will surrender his position atop the Official World Golf Ranking, although it’s fair to wonder how Woods held onto No. 1 without a victory of any size for almost 11½ months. The situation is nothing like it was in March 1999, when David Duval won 11 times in 18 months before finally unseating Tiger at the Players Championship, or September 2004, when Vijay Singh outdueled Woods at the Deutsche Bank – the sixth of his nine victories that season.

Maybe the Tiger Dynasty is over, maybe it isn’t, but it’s not like anyone brought the empire to its knees. Lee Westwood, pro golf’s king of prime leaderboard real estate, a swell player whose only victory in 2010 came against a weak field in Memphis, will inherit the top spot unless Martin Kaymer wins or finishes second this week in Spain. With the world ranking and its cushy mathematics as our guiding light, it’s not whether you win or lose these days, but how many top 10s you collect.

That said, Kaymer has made a decent case: Triumphs in his last three starts, a streak that began at the PGA Championship, although it’s worth noting that he entered the British Open ranked 13th in the world. If Woods no longer deserves to be No. 1, it’s because the world ranking has assumed a what-have-you-done-lately identity. If you prefer a formula that uses a wide-angle lens, Tiger remains untouchable. If a couple of years is your barometer, Westwood has been the most consistent top-level performer. If we’re talking about the last two months, they don’t get any hotter than Kaymer.

So what is the world ranking? How long a period should points be calculated? At what point does a victory become irrelevant to the here and now? It’s all subjective territory, and thus, a trigger for disagreement – this isn’t Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 or the Billboard Hot 100. Back in the mid-‘90s, the world ranking got ripped on a regular basis by the top players. Greg Norman, who held No. 1 for much of the first half of the decade, was never a fan of the system that deemed him the best in the game.

In 1993, Paul Azinger had 10 top-three finishes and won the PGA Championship, yet never climbed to higher than third. Changes were made steadily over the years, and when each of the four major championships began issuing automatic exemptions to those in the top 50, there was a movement from within to make the world ranking more current, fairness being another subjective premise.

Given the notion that there is no such thing as a perfect system – and the increased emphasis on recent form – it’s hard to understand why Kaymer isn’t No. 1 already. The other way of looking at it probably makes more sense. Woods had been at the top for so long, most of it with no real contenders to his reign, so a dispute over who deserves it now is a good thing. When Duval knocked Tiger off the throne in ’99, it was only after he’d won a third of his starts for a year and a half. Singh earned his No. 1 fair and square, too, but in 2010, the top spot in the world ranking has become a hot potato.

Nobody seems to want it, which is silly, but still, nobody has done enough to deserve it, which is one man’s version of reality.