News & Opinion

No. 1 question in golf: Who’s next No. 1?

Who’s No. 1 in golf today?

Does it matter? I mean, who hasn’t been No. 1? It’s on seemingly everyone’s resume.

It wasn’t long ago that Rory McIlroy looked as if he might win every time he teed it up. He was going to have a long run at No. 1 in the world rankings, we assumed. In four different stints at the top, he totaled 95 weeks and hasn’t returned there since September 2015.

It wasn’t long ago that Jordan Spieth chased the Grand Slam (2015) and looked as if he might win every time he teed it up. His last victory? Thirteen months ago. He spent all of 26 weeks at No. 1 – that’s 30 fewer weeks than veteran Ryder Cup warhorse Luke Donald held the spot in the early 2010s.

It wasn’t long ago that Jason Day broke the 20-under-par barrier in a major (the 2015 PGA at Whistling Straits), shot 59 a few weeks later while winning the BMW Championship and looked as if he might win every time he teed it up. He definitely was going to be tough to unseat as No. 1 in the world … we thought. Day held the spot for 51 weeks in total, almost a year.

It wasn’t so long ago that Dustin Johnson started hitting a fade instead of a draw, spent more time on his wedge play, won a U.S. Open and looked as if he might win every time he teed it up. He still does look like that, in fact. He was No. 1 for more than a year, then lost it briefly and got it back again. Johnson has been No. 1 for 76 of the past 80 weeks but hasn’t won a major title during his reign.

It wasn’t so long ago – just last year, in fact – that Justin Thomas added the PGA Championship to his rapidly growing portfolio of victories. With his complete game and his long drives, it looks as if he might win every time he tees it up. He collected victory No. 9 at Firestone in early August. Thanks to Johnson, his time as king of the hill was a mere four weeks.

So where are we now? Someplace else, someone else.

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Brooks Koepka, who won a second consecutive U.S. Open and followed with a PGA title, isn’t No. 1 yet, but it could be only a matter of time.

© GOLFFILE/BRIAN SPURLOCK
Brooks Koepka, who won a second consecutive U.S. Open and followed with a PGA title, isn’t No. 1 yet, but it could be only a matter of time.

Brooks Koepka is golf’s hottest Flavor of the Month. He is the first golfer in nearly three decades to win back-to-back U.S. Opens, and he slammed the door on the final nine to snuff out Tiger Woods and win the PGA Championship three weeks ago in St. Louis. Yeah, Koepka looks as if he might win every time he tees it up, especially after going from zero to three major titles in just 14 months.

For the record, that’s only two fewer majors than Phil Mickelson has won; one fewer than McIlroy; the same as Spieth; one more than Greg Norman and John Daly; two more than Day, Johnson, Thomas, Adam Scott and Jim Furyk; and three more than Thomas Bjorn and me.

Koepka ranks No. 2, with a bullet, and is just a few fractions of a point behind Johnson in the multiplication table that is the Official World Golf Ranking. Thomas is a close third. So, more throne-swapping is possible.

If Koepka gets to No. 1 – sorry, that probably should read, When Koepka gets to No. 1 – he would be the seventh player to hit that height since Woods last relinquished it in 2014.

I’m not sure whether the revolving door on top means anything. Maybe it means it’s difficult to keep pushing upon having reached the top of the mountain. Or as David Duval (quoting Peggy Lee) said after capturing the 2001 British Open, “Is that all there is?”

Maybe human nature is such that complacency after extraordinary success is unavoidable. In other words, if you win the Powerball jackpot, you don’t keep buying $2 tickets. I’m not sure who said that, but it probably was Jack Nicklaus or the great philosopher Mark Calcavecchia.

Maybe the equipment is so good now, players are so big and strong that 350-yard drives aren’t aberrations, that golf even at the highest level has become more of a putting contest than ever. It’s easy to have a power advantage if you hit it 30 yards past your opponents, ala Woods or a young Nicklaus. To consistently hole more putts more often than everyone else and do it enough to dominate? That seems unlikely.

Or maybe the truth about being King of Golf is that it’s much, much harder than Woods made it look. He stood head and shoulders above his peers. With apologies to Mickelson, no one was even close.

Today, we have a remarkable batch of talent at the top – call it a Deep Six, Magnificent Seven or Elite Eight or something else that’s actually clever and worth trademarking. And Woods is still playing; he’s a wild card who can’t be ignored.

The sudden rise of Koepka has eradicated any pretense that we know what’s coming next in golf. I thought Thomas had so much game that he ultimately would wind up with more majors than the rest of this bunch.

Koepka has convinced me that he, in fact, is that guy. Take another look at the PGA Championship’s last round. Koepka had a half-dozen makeable putts that he didn’t get down. He could have been 20 or 21 under par and routed the field.

So, who’s No. 1 isn’t the big question right now in golf. Who’s the next No. 1? That could prove to be a very big deal.

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