Par 5 Questions Surrounding the Battle for No 1


Setting the agenda for the week ahead with five questions for tournament golf at large . . .

Who wins Westwood vs. Donald, Part II?

This battle for No. 1 in the world rankings is looking like it will be a weekly affair heading into summer.

And it’s quite possible it will continue to be a transcontinental struggle with the outcome of events being played on different continents regularly coming into play.

A week after reclaiming No. 1, Lee Westwood is in action again in Asia, this time at the European Tour’s Ballantine’s Championship in Seoul, South Korea. No. 3 Luke Donald is scheduled to play in the PGA Tour’s Zurich Classic in New Orleans. No. 2 Martin Kaymer isn’t playing this week. Though the exact No. 1 scenarios won’t be out until we get closer to Thursday’s start, the ranking points are so close among the top three in the world that the top spot promises to be up for grabs again.

With Westwood winning last weekend at the Asian Tour’s Indonesian Masters, a weak field featuring just two players in the top 100 in the world rankings, and with Donald losing the Heritage in a playoff on the PGA Tour, the battle for No. 1 was good theater, even if you didn’t like the uneven playing fields. The world rankings battle, after all, isn’t a one-week struggle. It’s decided in a two-year rolling window.

Donald’s got the tougher challenge trying to win again this week, but the playing fields aren’t as uneven as they were last week.

What’s tougher, winning the Zurich Classic or Ballantine’s Championship?

Westwood headlines what’s being touted as the strongest field in Ballantine’s four-year history, but it’s still not as deep as the PGA Tour field at the Zurich Classic.

Donald’s the headliner in New Orleans, which is host to three of the top-10 players in the world and 12 of the top 50.

Westwood’s the only top-10 player at Ballantine’s, where seven of the top 50 are competing.

Zurich’s field includes No. 5 Graeme McDowell, No. 9 Steve Stricker, No. 14 Nick Watney, No. 16 Bubba Watson, No. 25 Justin Rose, No. 35 Ben Crane and No. 36 Rickie Fowler.

Ballantine’s field includes No. 11 Dustin Johnson, No. 13 Ernie Els, No. 15 Ian Poulter, No. 23 Miguel Angel Jimenez and No. 32 Y.E. Yang.

Is the volatility at the top of the rankings good for the game?

If you’re already a devoted follower of the game, you may like the uncertainty, the drama in so many characters crowding the stage in a bid for the game’s throne.

If you’re a fringe follower, you don’t like it so much.

That’s what history tells us.

The game’s popularity soared when Arnold Palmer seized the stage in the ‘50s and ‘60s. It soared again when Tiger Woods took the spotlight. The game reaches beyond its fringes when a dynamic character captures our fascination with his dominance. The masses like strong supporting characters to spice the drama, and we had that strong script working when Jack Nicklaus dominated, but they like having one brilliant star to root for or even to root against.

So where did we leave off in the women’s game?

Stacy Lewis finally gets to see if she can follow up on the momentum gained breaking through to win the Kraft Nabisco Championship three weeks ago.

Lewis was impressive overtaking world No. 1 Yani Tseng with a strong finish in the year’s first major, but this week’s Avnet LPGA Classic is Lewis’ first chance to follow up the victory after another long break in the tour’s schedule. It’s one of the unfortunate realities LPGA commissioner Mike Whan is dealing with in rebuilding the tour’s schedule. Just when he gets some good storytelling momentum going, there’s a stifling intermission.

And we’ve seen some pretty good stories develop with Tseng taking charge and grabbing the No. 1 world ranking at season’s start, with Hall of Famer Karrie Webb winning back-to-back events and with appealing first-time winners Lewis and Sandra Gal breaking through to win their first LPGA titles, but our attention’s lapsed with all the breaks in between.

Four months into the season, the LPGA’s staged just five events.

The nature of the schedule is costing the LPGA a chance to have every player in the top 10 in the world rankings at the Avnet LPGA Classic this week in Mobile, Ala. No. 2 Jiyai Shin and No. 7 In-Kyung Kim are the only top-10 players who aren't competing. Shin is back in Asia playing and decided to stay for a six-week run there rather than fly back to the United States for one event in the middle of that run.

LPGA pros had seven weeks off to open the year, played back-to-back events in Asia, had two weeks off, played three consecutive events on the West Coast, and had three weeks off. After this week’s Avnet, they’re off for two more weeks.

Tour pros have to be arriving at the Avnet LPGA Classic, feeling like they’re still trying to find their rhythm.

Who’s the player to beat at the Avnet LPGA Classic?

Lewis was impressive the way she held off Tseng, who seemed to be in total control going into the final round of the Kraft Nabisco.

The confidence Lewis, 26, gained putting all the elements of her game together with some newfound power make her a player with the goods to consistently contend.

But Lewis has some tough competition again with world No. 1 Tseng the player to beat every time she tees it up. The upside of a limited schedule is that you’ll see most of the LPGA’s stars at nearly every tournament. That’s the case at the Avnet LPGA Classic. Tseng, Cristie Kerr, Na Yeon Choi, Suzann Pettersen, Ai Miyazato, Karrie Webb, Michelle Wie and Paula Creamer are the top-10 challengers Lewis will take on. Se Ri Pak also is back as defending champion with 16-year-old Alexis Thompson scheduled to make her first appearance of the LPGA season on a sponsor’s exemption.



Follow Randall Mell on Twitter @RandallMell