SHANGHAI – Lee Westwood had little reason to think one year ago he could be No. 1 in the world, a position that looked “unattainable” the way Tiger Woods had been dominating golf for so much of the decade.
Golf can take some peculiar turns, though, which Westwood knows better than most.
Westwood reached No. 1 on Sunday for the first time. He ended a record run by Woods, who had led the world ranking for 281 weeks.
“Everyone thought it was unattainable,” Westwood said during a conference call. “People go through different things in life, and form comes and goes. I know as well as anyone you can lose your form.”
Westwood, at No. 266 in the world seven years ago while fighting through a severe slump, became only the 13th player to be No. 1 since the world ranking began in 1986, and the first European since Nick Faldo in 1994.
The 37-year-old Englishman is only the fourth player to get there without having won a major.
For now, this feels like one.
“Whenever you can sit down and say, ‘I’m the best in the world right now,’ it’s a dream that everybody holds,” Westwood said, calling it the most satisfying achievement of his career.
The final step was anticlimactic.
Westwood, who has finished only one tournament since the British Open while recovering from a calf injury, knew he would go to No. 1 as long as PGA champion Martin Kaymer did not finish among the top two at the Andalucia Masters in Spain.
Kaymer tied for 21st, and when the German walked off the 18th at Valderrama, champagne began pouring in Westwood’s home in England, where he shared the moment with his parents and about 20 friends.
Westwood is followed in the rankings by Woods, Kaymer, Phil Mickelson and Steve Stricker.
“Growing up, when people ask what you want to achieve, you turn around say, ‘I want to be the best in the world,”’ Westwood said. “Right at this very moment, I can show people the world ranking and say, ‘Look, I’m the best in the world. I’m the best on the planet for golf at the moment.’ It’s a fairly large achievement when you look at the people who were No. 1 in the ranking.”
For the longest time, that was Woods.
Woods has been introduced as the world’s No. 1 player since June 12, 2005, the week before he finished runner-up in the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2. He won the British Open a month later, and his ranking has rarely been threatened since.
The gap was as large as ever less than a year ago. When Woods won the Australian Masters, his points average in the world ranking was 16.17. Westwood was No. 5 at 5.92 points.
It all changed so quickly for Woods, who struggled through his worst season on and off the course. Woods took a five-month breath to cope with confessions of extramarital affairs, which ended in divorce, and his game has not been the same. He has not finished better than a tie for fourth – in the Masters and U.S. Open – and he has lost more ranking points than any player has earned.
Westwood could not have imagined getting to No. 1 without having at least won a major, but he’s not surprised he was the one who replaced Woods. He was runner-up in two majors (Masters, British Open), tied for fourth at The Players Championship and won the St. Jude Classic in Memphis, Tenn.
How long Westwood stays at the top remains to be seen.
He was to leave Monday for the HSBC Champions in Shanghai, where four players – Westwood, Woods, Kaymer and Phil Mickelson – will have a chance to be No. 1 in the world. For Mickelson, it will be his 13th straight tournament with a chance to be No. 1, the difference now that he is chasing Westwood, not Woods.
“This could be very exciting for the game of golf,” Westwood said.
It was reminiscent of June 1997, when Woods, Ernie Els and Greg Norman all reached No. 1 in a three-week span.
As much as this represents the end of Woods’ reign, it completes a remarkable turnaround for Westwood. He struggled through a slump so severe that he fell as low as No. 266 in the world on May 25, 2003. He gradually began to work his way back toward the top, and Westwood has been surging the last couple of years.
“When you get that low … it’s a very difficult process,” he said. “You take it a step at a time and rebuild the whole thing. And that’s what I tried to do.”
This is the 10th time Woods has lost the No. 1 ranking. The longest he was out of the No. 1 spot was 26 weeks toward the end of the 2004 season and beginning of 2005, when Vijay Singh went on a great run and Woods was in the middle of a swing change.
“You just keep playing,” Woods said in August, as his hold on No. 1 became more tenuous. “Winning golf tournaments takes care of a lot of things, and being No. 1 is one of them.”
Woods had an exhibition in Japan on Monday before going to Shanghai for the HSBC Champions, which starts Thursday at Sheshan International. Mickelson is the defending champion.
Westwood, meanwhile, becomes only the fourth player to reach No. 1 without winning a major. Ian Woosnam reached No. 1 in 1991 the week before he won the Masters, and Fred Couples was at No. 1 in two separate weeks a month before he won the Masters. David Duval was No. 1 for 15 weeks in 1999, and won the British Open two years later.
Westwood hopes a major is coming soon for him.
“It’s a confidence boost if anything,” he said. “It’s confirmation I’m working on the right thing.”