A Time for Golf


All hail the Big 3, et al

For the first time in some time there is parity in golf. And that can’t be a bad thing, can it? Could 20 million college football fans be wrong? How about the majority of NFL owners who agreed to a salary cap?

We’ve tried consensus thinking. Given it five years, in fact. Ever since Eldrick T. Woods scaled the World Golf Ranking summit on June 12, 2005, and started piling up ranking points, not to mention majors, between himself and the frat brothers.

Tiger Woods and Lee Westwood
Tiger Woods and Lee Westwood at a pre-tournament event for the HSBC Champions. (Getty Images)
But now parity, as elusive as five-hour rounds and flyer lies on Tour for years, has become commonplace among the elite. Consider this week’s WGC-HSBC Champions event in China, as good a fall stop as has ever been. Among the limited field are three players who can wrest the No. 1 crown away from Lee Westwood, including Woods. And that’s with Steve Stricker back home in Wisconsin hunting and Jim Furyk in Florida counting his FedEx Cup cash.

Unlike the FedEx Cup math, however, the possibilities this week are relatively straight forward. If Westwood doesn’t finish ahead of Woods and Martin Kaymer, and possibly Phil Mickelson, he will be bounced from atop the world order. Translation: the No. 1 ranking has gone from being double-locked and chained for five years to a revolving door.

Not that there was anything wrong with the alpha male thing. Truth is, Woods’ brilliance week in and week out made it beyond historic, but a little musical chairs between friends and foes is good for everyone. No?

Consider this week’s change over, with Westwood talking at length about how much the top ranking means to him and the European Tour. About how he’d dreamed of ascending Mt. OWGR since he was a kid back home in Worksop, England.

“It’s an interesting time for golf,” Westwood said. “It’s a lot more interesting when it’s more volatile with who can become world No. 1. Martin (Kaymer) has obviously played very consistently just recently. Tiger and Phil have been at the top of the world rankings for awhile, as I have myself.”

Now, fast forward a few weeks, or maybe months, to another press conference and another smiling face. This time it’s Mickelson, denied the top spot for so long, resolute not to invest too much emotional capital in the possibility but overcome by the notion that somehow there was still work to be done in a Hall of Fame career without it.

Lefty’s record 266 weeks at No. 2 is far more impressive from a competitive standpoint, but it’s impossible to underestimate how important the “world No. 1” prefix is to a man that has been second to only one for so long.

Kaymer, unquestionably the best over the last 12 months and seemingly destined to join fellow countryman Bernhard Langer atop the pack at some point in his career, Stricker and Furyk would be equally compelling stories if they reached the top spot.

And finally imagine the motivational properties the universal uncertainty brings to Woods. Like most, Woods dismisses the importance of the top spot, an effect impacted only by the ultimate cause – winning. The two are mutually exclusive only to the extent that what happens after the victory speech is background noise to the ultimate statement.

Going winless in 2010 has undoubtedly rekindled Woods’ desire and driven him to the practice tee and into the stable of Sean Foley with a purpose. Slipping out of the top spot in the world ranking for the first time since 2005, however, also resonates somewhere within that stoic psyche.

A win this week at the HSBC Champions wouldn’t salvage the season so much as it would set the stage for 2011 much like last year’s victory in China laid the ground work that Mickelson road all the way to his third green jacket in April.

In short, the debate is about much more than simply a reason to linger at the office water cooler for a few extra minutes. It’s a reason to talk golf when, historically, the world of sport is largely fixated on football and basketball.

It’s a reason to pick up the newspaper on Monday and flip to the agate page to catch the World Golf Ranking for the first time in 281 weeks.

“I think for the neutral (fan) who doesn’t normally watch golf, it’s captured their imagination,” Westwood said.

Mickelson said it best on Wednesday, telling the Associated Press he doesn’t think the battle for No. 1 will be settled until early next year, right about the time the World Golf Championships are played leading into the major championship season. In short, parity has given us a reason to look forward to 2011.

Golf has a new “Big Three, et al.” Enjoy.