ORLANDO, Fla. – Who’s Number One?
I know the answer. It’s the guy with the grizzled beard and the mesh trucker hat that reads “I’m No. 1” on the front.
Who’s No. 1 in men’s golf right this moment? I know I should care greatly, but I just don’t. Maybe it’s because I don’t have a bonus riding on it. Plus, it’s getting hard to keep up.
Golf went about a decade without wasting a minute worrying, wondering or debating who was No. 1 because it was Tiger Woods all day, every day, by a mile. Woods had such a large mathematical lead in the Official World Golf Ranking that it would take months for anyone to pass him, even if they outplayed him. The fact that Vijay Singh actually did it during Woods’ prime remains one of golf’s great underrated achievements – nearly as great as the time Andrew Magee aced the par-4 17th hole at the Phoenix Open with a tee shot that glanced off Tom Byrum’s putter on the green and went into the hole.
So, here’s my ironic quandary: The No. 1 ranking was ho-hum when we knew it was automatically Tiger. Now, the No. 1 ranking is ho-hum because they’re playing musical tees and it’s somebody different every couple of weeks.
Dustin Johnston. Justin Rose. Brooks Koepka. Justin Thomas. And let’s not forget the Class of 2015, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Jordan Spieth. Rose, Fowler and McIlroy are in the Arnold Palmer Invitational field here at Bay Hill this week (tee times).
This group of guys is practically interchangeable as No. 1 players, and more power to them. A level of parity at the top of the heap isn’t that interesting. When the No. 1 ranking is fleeting, how valuable can it be?
Being No. 1 doesn’t come with any tangible perks unless a player’s agent got a bonus clause inserted into an endorsement deal.
In college football, being No. 1 is a path to the national championship, so it carries some significance. College basketball has its NCAA Tournament, a match-play way to crown a champion that makes the season-long rankings meaningless.
Golf rankings? They are arbitrary numbers based on an arbitrary points-accumulation system that has many flaws.
Golf has a better way to determine who’s No. 1. It holds a golf tournament just about every week. Four of them, the major championships, feature most of the world’s best players and are definitive without subjectivity. Low score wins, winner’s name gets enshrined in history and, at least in my book, that champion is the No. 1 player in the world until the next major championship.
So, that makes PGA champion Koepka my current No. 1, at least until the Masters. The Official World Golf Ranking lists Johnson at No. 1, some kind of piece of a part of a bit of a decimal point ahead of Rose, followed by Koepka and Thomas.
That’s about right, if it matters. There are two big issues with the world rankings for me. One is figuring out what a win or a third-place finish in Japan equals on the European Tour or the PGA Tour. They’re apples and oranges, and the application of points is ultimately a political decision.
The other is basing the rankings on two years’ worth of results. Yes, the finishes from two seasons ago count only half as much as the current season’s results, but realistically, they aren’t relevant. Three months ago qualifies as ancient history when considering a player’s form. Anything more than 12 months ago has no bearing other than historical.
But the rankings require hard data, so the numbers-crunchers have something to crunch besides their morning cereal.
The world rankings are more responsive and, I suppose, volatile if we were to simply use the ranking points gained only in the last 12 months.
On that basis, Johnson would have a substantial lead at No. 1 this year. Thomas would be second, Rose third and McIlroy fourth, followed by Rickie Fowler, Xander Schauffele, Bryson DeChambeau and Matt Kuchar – slightly different from the official standings.
I like the more current version better. Sure, we might see the No. 1 players rise and fall even faster, which doesn’t help my earlier complaint about musical chairs being uninteresting. But I have a solution for that.
Make the world’s top-ranked player wear a “I’m No. 1” mesh trucker hat. Trust me: That’s a look. In fact, I’m willing to let him borrow mine.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle