Dustin Johnson’s victory at last week’s FedEx St. Jude Classic returned him to the No. 1 spot in the world rankings, a position he relinquished to Justin Thomas after The Players Championship. It also gives him a chance to accomplish something at the U.S. Open he wasn’t able to do the last time he was No. 1, something only four other players have been able to do. He will try to become the fifth player to win a major championship as the No. 1 player in the world.
In the 32-year history of the Official World Golf Ranking only Ian Woosnam, Fred Couples, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy have won major championships while on top. Woods did it 11 times, the others one time each for a total of 14 major victories by a world No. 1.
There have been 129 majors since the advent of the ranking, meaning the top player in the world has won 10.8 percent of the majors played. If you take Woods out of the equation – Tiger won 11 of 55 majors held while he was No. 1 – the leader of the world ranking has won three of 77 majors.
That’s such a stunning sentence that it bears repeating. When the No. 1 player in the world is not named Tiger Woods, he has won three times in 77 majors. We’ll try to explain that staggering number as we take a trip through the history of the ranking. And after we do, we will also explain why this summer just might provide us with the first No. 1 player to win a major since McIlroy at the 2014 PGA Championship.
A little background:
The OWGR was launched prior to the 1986 Masters, the impetus coming from The R & A, which was looking for a way to properly invite qualified players to the Open Championship, and with a boost from IMG’s Mark McCormack, who published a ranking system in his year-end annual. Bernhard Langer was the first No. 1 player and when he finished T-16 in the 1986 Masters, he became the first No. 1 who failed to win a major.
Less than a month later, Seve Ballesteros took over the top spot from Langer and proceeded to finish no better than T-6 in the three majors in which he was world No. 1. Then came Greg Norman, who was 0-for-7 with one “did not play” in his eight majors, the first time he was the lead Shark. Ballesteros and Norman traded places atop the ranking two more times. None would win a major in that span.
It wasn’t until Woosnam won the 1991 Masters, the 21st major played after the ranking was launched, that the No. 1 player in the world was victorious. A year later, Couples won the Masters as world No. 1. For the remainder of the century, no top-ranked player would win a major championship.
Players who have won a major while ranked No. 1 in the world
|Masters Tournament||U.S. Open||Open Championship||PGA Championship|
|Ian Woosnam, 1991||Tiger Woods, 2000||Tiger Woods, 2000||Tiger Woods, 2000|
|Fred Couples, 1992||Tiger Woods, 2002||Tiger Woods, 2005||Tiger Woods, 2006|
|Tiger Woods, 2001||Tiger Woods, 2004||Tiger Woods, 2006||Tiger Woods, 2007|
|Tiger Woods 2002||Rory McIlroy, 2014|
Naturally, Woods broke the streak, and did so with a vengeance.
Woods moved to No. 1 in the world for the first time in June 1997. He didn’t win any of the first eight majors played while he was No. 1, breaking through for the first time at the 2000 U.S. Open. He would win the next three majors to complete the Tiger Slam. As we stated earlier, Woods was No. 1 for 55 majors. He won 11 of them.
The last of his victories was also the last time the No. 1 player in the world won the U.S. Open. Playing despite damage to the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and with two stress fractures in his left tibia, Woods beat Rocco Mediate in a 91-hole grind at Torrey Pines in June 2008. Since then, the world No. 1 has won just one of 39 majors – McIlroy at Kiawah Island in ’14.
So, why doesn’t the best player in the world win more majors?
The easiest answer is: Winning is hard, for everyone. The difference between the best player and the 10th-best player in the world is minimal. It’s not much more between No. 1 and No. 50. Want proof? Look at how many “upsets” occur at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play.
But let’s not use a tournament where the vagaries of match play prove this point. Let’s use scoring average instead. In this age of modern statistical analysis scoring average might seem archaic, but it is the end result of every other statistic.
Johnson was the No. 1 player in the world rankings at the end of the 2017 season. He was seventh on the PGA Tour in scoring average at 69.55. There was a one-stroke difference between Johnson and the 52nd player on Tour in scoring average (Seamus Power). That’s pretty small. It’s the difference between one player knocking in a 20-foot putt and another coming up one roll short. It’s the difference between one player getting a lucky bounce off the slope onto a green, while the other gets a bounce into a bunker. It’s the difference between … well, you get the idea.
For certain, Johnson and Power played different tournaments with different strength of fields. Johnson played The Open the same week Power played the Barbasol Championship. But quite a few players who ranked between Johnson and Power in scoring average also played in The Open, and would you believe that 24 of those players finished better than Johnson at Royal Birkdale? Sure you believe it, because on any given week every one of those players can be just as good as DJ. In fact, the winner that week, Jordan Spieth, actually led the Tour in scoring average.
And Spieth, with the lowest scoring average on the PGA Tour, won just three of the 23 Tour events (13 percent) he played last year. Johnson, the world No. 1, won four times in 20 starts (20 percent); although he wasn’t No. 1 for all of them.
Those are good percentages. Actually, they’re stellar percentages.
Winning 20 percent of your tournaments is really, really good. Rickie Fowler was second in scoring average and ended 2017 ranked seventh in the world. He won one time in 21 starts on Tour. Paul Casey – fifth in scoring and 14th on the year-end ranking – didn’t win at all on Tour.
In the 21 years since Woods first became the world’s No. 1 player, the top-ranked player has played in 417 PGA Tour events. He has won 91 times, or 21.8 percent. Of course, Woods accounts for most of those victories. If you eliminate his 68 wins in 249 starts, you are left with 23 wins by the world No. 1 in 168 starts (13.7 percent).
That’s all Tour events. When the No. 1 player in the world is not named Tiger Woods and he plays on the PGA Tour, he wins less than 14 percent of the time. If it’s that hard for the world No. 1 to win in Hartford or Houston or Honolulu, it must mean that …
Winning majors is harder. Major fields are strong and deep, with all four of them inviting at least the top 50 players in the world. The top 10 players in the world rarely appear in the same event unless it’s a major championship. It reasonable to believe that if the top player wins just 14 percent of the time in which he plays a regular event, with less than half the top 10 or top 50 present, it would be twice as hard to win a major with every star in the field hungry for one of the game’s four most important championships.
In fact, while the world No. 1 has only won 14 majors, players ranked No. 2 through No. 5 have won 27 times:
- No. 2: 7 major wins
- No. 3: 9 major wins
- No. 4: 5 major wins
- No. 5: 6 major wins
Four players even moved from No. 2 to No. 1 after winning a major. They were Nick Faldo at the 1992 Open Championship, Nick Price at the 1994 PGA, and Woods at the 1999 PGA and the 2005 Masters.
Which brings us to our next point.
The No. 1 player on the world ranking is not necessarily the best player in the world. There is a difference. Take Price, for example. He moved to No. 1 after winning the ‘94 PGA Championship, but there’s no question he was already the best player in the world. Price won the 1992 PGA Championship, four times on the PGA Tour in 1993 and won three times in six starts coming into the ’94 PGA. The No. 1 player going into that major was Norman. Sure, Norman won The Players that March and had three runner-up finishes in his previous eight starts, but Price was winning. He was clearly No. 1. The ranking hadn’t figure that out yet.
More recently, Spieth, with four wins in 15 starts during the spring and summer of 2015, had been the best player in the world for several months before he became the No. 1 player in August. In fact, by the time Spieth moved to No. 1, Jason Day was the best player in the world. The ranking math didn’t work out for him until after he won the BMW Championship, his fourth victory in six starts.
Which is a roundabout way of getting to the final point mentioned way back at the top of this story. That this summer, the No. 1 player – DJ, JT or someone else – stands a good chance of winning a major championship.
We told you earlier that since June 1997, players whose initials are not TW won 23 times in 168 starts while ranked No. 1. Now look at how many of those wins came almost immediately after there was a change at the top of the world ranking.
Five times a player won in his first start at No. 1. Three more came in his second start at No. 1. Three more came in his third start.
It appears that when the top spot on the world ranking is in flux, when the No. 1 spot has just been taken over, the new leader is still playing well enough to win. Even if that means winning a major.
Which, if you’re Dustin Johnson, is good news, indeed.