AKRON, Ohio – Tiger Woods could have maintained his tenuous spot atop the sometimes contrived yet universally accepted Official World Golf Ranking by finishing 44th or better at Firestone. Phil Mickelson could have finally wrested the No. 1 ranking from Woods with a fourth-place finish or better. Both played like No. 2.
Neither player looked the part of alpha male on Sunday, what with Lefty struggling to a final-round 78 and a tie for 46th and Woods going one shot better on the day (77) but finishing in a career-worst tie for 78th. But world ranking math and a curious public demand a king, be it by default or otherwise.
For the first time since the summer of 2005 the normally structured world of men’s golf is defined by questions, if not chaos.
“If I keep finishing ahead of him every week eventually it'll happen,” Mickelson said. “But the problem is there's guys behind me that will pass me because I'm not playing well enough right now. I've got some work to do to get my own game sharp.”
But then the guy who three-putted from 3 feet (No. 9) and hit the same number of fairways and greens (six) on Sunday and played the weekend in 9 over par doesn’t exactly scream No. 1.
On Saturday, Woods was asked about Mickelson’s chances to claim the top spot. His answer suggested he knew more than the rest of us, “If Phil plays the way he’s supposed to this weekend, then he’ll be No. 1.”
Mickelson has had more than a half dozen chances to dethrone Woods this season, but Firestone was his best and most realistic chance to date. On Friday, Lefty was a stroke behind front-runner Retief Goosen. By Sunday he was looking for answers, just like the rest of us.
It was a measure of the strange days that have gripped golf that on the eve of the year’s final major, Lee Westwood, No. 3 in the world, appeared to some as the best current option for the top spot as he watched the proceedings from his couch at home while nursing a calf injury.
The current void left by Woods’ competitive vortex is not so much about who is the best player right now, but more about how the world No. 1 should be measured?
World Ranking math aside, few if any consider Woods the current No. 1. At least not the current version. Mickelson has three top-10s since his emotional Masters victory but has not exactly been dominant; while Westwood has earned the most world ranking points (273) this season and has been the most consistent but he has just a single victory at the St. Jude Classic.
“To me it’s about people who win,” Paul Casey said. “I had three (worldwide) wins last year, great year. None this year, it has not been a great year. It’s like (the movie) ‘Talladega Nights.’ What did (Ricky Bobby) say, ‘If you’re not first, you’re last.’”
Prior to 1986, when the world ranking debuted, the debate over who was the best at any particular time was decided almost exclusively on the number of victories a player had.
“We didn’t care about being No. 1, only winning,” said Charlie Epps, a long-time Tour swing coach.
Sean O’Hair took a slightly different approach, suggesting that it is consistency, not the number of championships on the mantel, that should decide who is atop the heap.
“To be hot you’ve got to be in contention on a regular basis. Just because you win a golf tournament doesn’t mean you’re hot. Even if you win two golf tournaments, you can win two tournaments and not be in contention the rest of the year,” O’Hair said before conceding that Ernie Els (a two-time Tour winner this year) would probably get his vote for Player of the Year.
All of which has created a golf landscape that is as murky as it has been in a half decade and a PGA Championship with more uncertainty than a BP cleanup plan.
In the spring and early summer of 2005, Woods and Vijay Singh traded the top ranking six times, with Woods finally taking over for good when Singh tied for 29th at the now-defunct Booz Allen Classic. And for the better part of a record 269 weeks Woods has been an undisputed pacesetter, as evidenced by his dogged hold on the top spot this year despite the worst slump of his career.
But that clarity, that structure, has been eroded by the inconsistencies of Woods and Mickelson and a two-year rolling system that resists the urges of a sporting public that often suffers from a collective form of attention deficit disorder.
It is a debate that seems certain to dominate the conversation at Whistling Straits and as the sun settled over Firestone on Sunday Padraig Harrington, one of the game’s most direct and well-spoken players, offered the best, if not somewhat couched, assessment of the great world ranking debate of 2010.
“(Westwood) is the most consistent player, (Mickelson) is the best when he’s playing well and (Woods) is the best player in the world,” Harrington smiled.
If only it was as simple, and clear, as all of that.