MARANA, Ariz. – The climb to the mountaintop isn’t so impossible anymore.
The path to No. 1 isn’t so wickedly daunting.
And Zeus is no longer hurling lightning bolts down at anyone daring to make the climb.
That’s what Tiger Woods was like when he ruled at No. 1 in the world rankings for a record five years.
After Woods got the top ranking back from Vijay Singh in 2005, he built a pile of points as formidable as Mount Everest. He more than doubled the total of the second ranked player, making it laughable for any pro to publicly suggest he was aiming to be No. 1.
Paul Azinger once said he felt sorry for players competing in Woods’ generation, because they would never know what it was like to have a chance to be No. 1 with Woods around.
Nobody could have predicted how quickly that would change.
With the best players in the world gathered for Wednesday’s start of the Accenture Match Play Championship, there’s more than a World Golf Championship title at stake. There’s a chance to gain the No. 1 ranking or make a giant hurdle toward gaining the top spot.
The 76 world-ranking points is the most available to a winner this year.
“I never held up being No. 1 as a goal before,” said reigning U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell. “Tiger was so far ahead of everyone, it seemed insurmountable. Now, I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t think that was achievable. I have to put it up there as a goal.”
Lee Westwood’s held the No. 1 ranking the last 17 weeks. He’s vulnerable, though. No. 2 Martin Kaymer can pass Westwood with a victory or a second-place finish. Woods can also jump all the way back to No. 1 with a victory, depending on what Kaymer and Westwood do. But here’s how volatile and wide open this world rankings race has become: Though Woods can gain the top spot back, the seven players directly behind him all have chances to pass him with strong finishes. If Woods goes out in the first round, he’s vulnerable to dropping all the way to No. 7.
“I look at the world rankings quite a lot now,” says Rory McIlroy, who’s at No. 7 this week. “I think if I win, I could go up to third or fourth in the world. Trying to get to No. 1, it’s definitely a big motivating factor for me.”
With a victory, McIlroy will move to No. 3 in the world.
“It’s a goal, of course, but I’m not in any rush to get there,” McIlroy said. “If I keep working and doing the right things, hopefully, somewhere down the line, I’ll achieve that.”
Paul Casey, No. 6 in the world, can leap all the way to No. 2 with a victory.
“I would love to be No. 1,” Casey said. “But, for me, it’s a side goal. I want to win majors. I want to be the Masters and Open champion. But, yes, the landscape’s changed to where you see it’s possible to get there now. The thing is that there are so many great players who can get there. It’s not like it’s easy winning a golf tournament now. It’s just as difficult to win today as it’s ever been, maybe more difficult.
“What you would like today is for Tiger to get back to playing his best golf, and come down the stretch with him and beat him. That would be cool. As a competitor, that’s what you want.”
Kaymer is closest to toppling Westwood this week, but he seems the least interested in world rankings among the challengers for No. 1.
“I’m not worried about my world rankings at all,” Kaymer said. “If you play good golf, you don’t have to worry about it. If you play bad golf, then you should worry about your world rankings.
“It’s nice to be up there, early in my career, and hopefully, one day, I can become No. 1 for a little bit. But at the moment, I’m pretty happy where I am, at No. 2.”
Westwood is relishing his reign as No. 1 and will be looking to build on it this week, but he sees the volatility in today’s rankings as good for the game.
“Time moves on, doesn’t it?” Westwood said. “The world rankings aren’t going to be the same forever. You’ve got lots of great young players coming through, and I like the volatility of the world rankings. You tend to see now if you put a good run together, you move up. If you stay in that run, you stay very high . . . I think the world rankings are very good, and they’ll make the game of golf look healthy.”
And not so wickedly daunting if you’re dreaming of being the No. 1 player in the world.
Follow Randall Mell on Twitter @RandallMell