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Becoming No. 1

The Official World Golf Ranking is a mysterious mix of points and mathematical formulas used to determine the world’s best golfer
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Saturday Night Live: How it Shapes Our Politics & Culture, September/October 2011

(continued from page 2)

Even Donald, who is a member of the PGA Tour, himself is a little dizzied to have risen to No. 1.

“It’s something I’ve never really thought about,” Donald says. “I think as a kid you dream about winning majors and winning tournaments, but for me I always kept an eye out on the world rankings. I had an interest in it, but I suppose for the bulk of my career Tiger was so far ahead that it never really crept into my mind. But in the last year or so there has been more of an upheaval in the rankings and there’s been a lot of movement, so I knew the opportunity was there.”

When asked if he feels like he is No. 1, Donald replies, “I do, I do.”  He continues, “I think the way the world rankings are, consistency is very highly weighted. If you can keep playing well week in and week out, keep earning those points, then you’re going to climb in the world rankings, and I don’t think there’s anybody been more consistent in the last nine months than me.”

Nick Faldo, now the lead commentator for CBS golf broadcasts, took over the No. 1 spot in the world rankings in July of 1992 after his final British Open victory, and held it for 81 weeks. He thinks that Donald has done his sums correctly. “Luke Donald was talked about the whole season, how consistent he was, how consistent he was playing at a high level and he was comfortable when he became No. 1,” says Faldo. “Lee Westwood, for all his great play in 2010, backed into the No. 1 position when Tiger fell off. He was in a supermarket or something when he became No. 1.

“You know, I never thought about being No. 1 in the first stage of my career. Until the system really got going, probably in my mind around 1990, I didn’t think about it. But when it did really get going, I made it an obsession to become world No. 1.”
Phil Mickelson hasn’t let it be known that he has an obsession to become world No.1, but he certainly is the greatest player never to hold that rank. His long and highly successful career has been spent almost entirely in the shadow of Tiger Woods. Mickelson has played Avis to Woods’ Hertz for more than a decade, sitting in second place but unable to draft his way to the front.

As Woods’ form deteriorated, starting with his injury absence from the game for knee surgery following his 2008 U.S. Open win, the quadruple bogey of his personal life in 2009 and continued injury problems though 2010 into 2011, Mickelson was in a position to take over the No. 1 ranking no less than 12 times. Sometimes he was just a win away from doing it, other times he needed just a high finish in a major. His own form deteriorated toward the end of the 2010 season, allowing Westwood, Kaymer and Donald to swoop past him.

“We were talking the other day. Phil Mickelson has never been No. 1 in the world,” says Couples. “I think that’s incredible to me. But [he was] going up against Tiger Woods, and even when Tiger didn’t have those crazy years, Vijay was having them, and Vijay was phenomenal.”

If you are phenomenal, you are No. 1. But if you are phenomenally consistent, and no one else is a phenomenal winner, you are also No. 1. That’s how it has worked out for Luke Donald and for Westwood and for Kaymer. The No. 1 ranking is earned, not bestowed. And now Rory McIlroy, with an overarching U.S. Open win under his belt, is nearing the summit as his psyche and body adapt to the thin air at the game’s highest altitude.

But while there is debate about No. 1, the world rankings have a very practical aspect to players and to tournaments. As Graeme McDowell puts it: “It’s about No. 50.”

Those players ranked within the top 50 in the world get exemptions into the world’s best tournaments. The Masters, U.S. and British Opens use the top-50 mark for exemptions. The World Championship Golf events use the world rankings to determine their fields. A player in the top 50, therefore, gets to play in the highest-rated tournaments with the highest number of points available, therefore allowing him to milk the cash cow more frequently than lower-ranked players.

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