Chasing the number one

Chasing the number one

The rankings reward consistency over a period of time, explaining Tiger Woods’ position at the top.

In sports, you either win or you don’t -- it is a rigid bottomline. The world golf rankings, with a two-year rolling points system, are the rare perch offering athletes a place to rest on their laurels. Nine months have passed since top-ranked Tiger Woods last visited the winner’s circle. In that time, Jimmy Walker and Patrick Reed each have collected three titles on the PGA Tour. Neither has cracked the top 10; Walker is No 22, two spots ahead of Reed.

 Eight weeks have passed since Woods’ last competitive round before he was sidelined with a back injury. Eight players have notched victories on the PGA Tour and five on the European Tour. Only two, Bubba Watson and Matt Kuchar, appear in this week’s top 10, which includes six players, in addition to Woods, who are winless in 2014.

 At the Players Championship that ends today, the fourth-ranked Watson, in his first start since his Masters victory, and the fifth-ranked Kuchar joined No 2 Adam Scott and No 3 Henrik Stenson as players who can take over the top spot from Woods, the defending champion who wrote on his blog this week that he was hopeful of a summer return.

 The way the rankings are calculated, if Scott had joined Woods on the sidelines this week, he would have been assured of passing Woods in next week’s standings. Informed of the quirk in the calculations, Scott said, “See you later, guys.”

He was kidding, but his circumstance raises this question: If playing is a potential roadblock to No 1, is professional golf on the right rankings path?

“With tours all around the world, people playing everywhere and awarding fair points for everything, I think they have come up with the best they possibly can,” Scott said, “and they have been fairly accurate over the years.”

 The job of slotting players falls to a world ranking governing board, which consists of one representative each from the PGA Tour, the European Tour, the alliance of international PGA Tours and the four majors. Golf has to make a single serving from different cups of alphabet soup because there is no world tour, as exists in tennis, for instance.

 The Association of Tennis Professionals settled on a 52-week rolling system after experimenting more than a decade ago with a calendar-year points race similar to what is in place in Formula One racing. The yearlong system creates a heightened sense of urgency for players defending points and more accurately mirrors what the fans are seeing on the court. 

Rory McIlroy, whose fiancée is the tennis player Caroline Wozniacki, said: “You could argue that if you wanted to make them more current you could go the way tennis is, where it’s a one-year system. But then, if it’s one year, all you’re thinking about is the ranking, because you’ve so many points to defend this week and that week. And believe me, I know.”

McIlroy rose to No 1 in 2012 and fell out of the top 10 last week for the first time in more than three years.

“I think some people, especially in sports, we have short memories, and you’re thinking, 'How is that guy still there?' he said. ”But, 'Oh, hold on a minute — 18 months ago he won one of the biggest tournaments we have.' So I think it works pretty well. If you look at it, it is pretty current."

Scott probably needs a top-16 finish to become the second Australian after Greg Norman to reach No 1. Stenson, the reigning champion of the FedEx Cup and the Race to Dubai, probably needs a top-six finish. Watson, who won his second Masters last month, needs a victory or a solo second, and Kuchar, who has eight top 10s in 11 starts this season, must win.

“We’ve seen Phil Mickelson, who is arguably top-five best of all time, and he’s never been No 1,” Watson said. “That would just show me that the rankings are kind of messed up if Bubba Watson could be No 1 and Phil Mickelson has never been No 1.”Watson, a two-time winner in 2014, has six career tour victories, including two majors. Mickelson has 42 tour titles, including five majors, and four international victories. He has risen as high as No 2, most recently last August.

Mickelson called the rankings fair. Referring to Watson, he added: “He’s probably missing that I played Tiger at his best. I played against Tiger for years when he was at his absolute best.”

Woods has spent a total of 682 weeks at No 1 since his first ascent in 1997, his shadow blocking out everyone else’s view of the summit, perhaps so much so that some of his competitors have not even perceived it as a target. When asked about his chance to reach No 1, Kuchar said: “That’s really cool. I don’t think I knew that.”

 Scott said he did not know he would have been better off, mathematically speaking, staying at home if he wanted to reach No 1. Not that it would have made any difference. “Obviously, playing the Players means more to me than sitting at home just to get to a No 1 world ranking,” he said.

He added, “I would like to win to go to No 1.”

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