News & Opinion

Best player in golf? It’s not so simple

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Tiger Woods spoiled us. For a dozen years, he was the obvious answer to golf’s big question: Who’s Number One?

Take a look at the silly numbers Woods put up: He was No. 1 for 281 weeks at one point, a record, and 683 weeks overall. My math skills have declined along with my clubhead speed, but my long division with pencil and paper (remember them?) shows that is 13 years’ worth.

Who’s Number One now? The Official World Golf Ranking says Dustin Johnson, who has held the spot for almost a year – 50 weeks and counting.

But who’s really the best player in the world? That’s a different and more complicated question. I don’t have an answer, and no matter what happens here at the Waste Management Phoenix Open this weekend, I still won’t have an answer.

Clearly, it has become a multiple-choice question because we’re blessed with such an abundance of talent at golf’s highest level, maybe the most quality in numbers we’ve seen since the late 1970s and early ’80s. Remember the 1981 U.S. Ryder Cup team that was heavy with future World Golf Hall of Famers such as Ben Crenshaw, Raymond Floyd, Hale Irwin, Tom Kite, Johnny Miller, Larry Nelson, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson? Yeah, not bad.

Although we haven’t seen dominance of late, we have seen excellence. As a result, the No. 1 spot changed hands 12 times since Woods last held it in May of 2014 and, for a while, turned into an entertaining game of musical chairs among Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day.

How much does being No. 1 mean? A lot if you’ve never done it. Not so much, perhaps, once it has been achieved. Phil Mickelson, for instance, never won the money title and never got to No. 1—thank you very little, Tiger.

“It’s absolutely a huge, huge goal of mine to try to keep the No. 1 position in the world for as long as I can,” said Justin Thomas, the PGA Championship winner, who is ranked No. 4. “Obviously, I need to get there first. It’s a huge goal, but there are so many guys who could be No. 1 by the end of the year.”

Spieth has been there and done that on four occasions, the longest stretch being 20 weeks.

“It’s not even on the radar for me anymore,” Spieth, who stands No. 3 in the OWGR, behind Jon Rahm, said here at TPC Scottsdale. “It was something I wanted to do. My view on it now is probably different from guys who are searching to get there. I honestly think guys would take more pride in it if they had dethroned Tiger back in the day to get to No. 1. If I took No. 1 from Tiger in 2000 or whenever, that would have been something I might say 50 years from now. For me, it was [dethroning] Rory, which was really special in itself.”

Golf’s top 10 is stacked. Behind Thomas, in order, there’s Hideki Matsuyama, who’s going for a third straight Phoenix Open title this week; Olympic gold medalist Justin Rose; Rickie Fowler; U.S. Open champ Brooks Koepka; and Day, who won last week at Torrey Pines in a playoff. Your Masters champion, Sergio Garcia, is a very strong No. 11. 

Thomas figures that anyone among the top 10 or so is capable of attaining No. 1. 

“It’s just, who’s going to win the big events and be the most consistent?” he said.

Who will that be in 2018? Well, in the summer of 2015 when the briefly named Big Three were Spieth, Day and McIlroy, Day’s best golf then looked better than Spieth’s or McIlroy’s. Day had back problems and personal issues last year, but he looked like his old self in winning last week at Torrey Pines. 

How would his best match up with Johnson’s best? Or even against Rahm, who has risen so far so quickly with two wins in Europe and two in the U.S. and a flurry of close calls. If we’re fortunate, we’ll get the chance to find out.

Rahm finished second to Johnson at Kapalua last month and said, “The only person I lost to was Superman.”

Wednesday, he laughed when reminded of that comment. “I said that as a joke because he won a tournament by eight shots and almost holed out a driver from 430 yards,” Rahm said. “Those are things that don’t happen often. This is golf. Nobody is unbeatable, but we all know D.J. is a force to be reckoned with.

“If I beat him, that wouldn’t make me Superman. I would just be the guy who defeated Superman.”

In related news, the guy who used to be Superman moved up to No. 539 in this week’s rankings, a leap of 117 spots from where he ended 2017. His name is Tiger Woods. I suggest you make a note. 

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle