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Friday, May 9, 2014
The questionable quest for No. 1

By Gene Wojciechowski
ESPN.com

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Quick, name me the top five ranked players in the world. I'll even give you a freebie: Tiger Woods, whose son, Charlie, has played more golf than his old man this year, is No. 1 followed by ... ?

You guessed Adam Scott? Correct. Scott leads the planet in Most Women In His Galleries (including one here at the Players Championship who wore a cellophane-tight dress, 4-inch pumps and a Miss Jacksonville sash while following the just-married Aussie), but is only No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking.

Bubba Watson
If Bubba Watson could finish solo second this week at the Players Championship, he would likely become No. 1 in the world. The reigning Masters champion knows, though, that winning tournaments is what proves who is the best in the world.

Rory McIlroy? Not even in the top 10.

Phil Mickelson? Eighth.

Bubba Watson? Ding, ding, ding ... fourth.

The other two? Unless you're in a fantasy golf league, you probably wouldn't pick Henrik Stenson (third) and Matt Kuchar (fifth).

Of all the dumb things in golf (course rankings ... stroke and distance penalty on out-of-bounds shots ... plus fours), the world ranking -- and the quest for No. 1 -- is the leader in the clubhouse. It is like being the world's fastest snail, or first chair in a kazoo orchestra.

Woods has been No. 1 all of 11 different times during his career for a grand total of 682 weeks atop the ranking. Impressive, but useless and, from a practical sense, meaningless.

Is Woods the best player in the world right now? Of course not. He's the best player recovering from back surgery. He's the best player dating an Olympic skier. But his back condition has limited him to four events this year and nobody, including Woods, knows when he'll return.

The world ranking doesn't care. Unless Scott finishes in the top 16 at the Players Championship, or Watson finishes in second place, or Stenson finishes in a two-way tie for sixth or better, or Kuchar wins outright, Woods will retain his No. 1 for at least another week.

The world ranking has its heart in the right place, but it doesn't mean anything. J.B. Holmes won last week at the Wells Fargo Championship. He was ranked 242nd.

Seung-Yul Noh won the Zurich Classic two weeks ago. He was ranked 176th.

Steven Bowditch won the Valero Texas Open in late March. He was ranked 336th.

Russell Henley won at Honda. He was ranked 110th.

Kevin Stadler won the Phoenix Open in February. He was ranked 127th.

And look who's leading the Players: former No. 1 Martin Kaymer, who entered the week ranked 61st. Tied for third is Geoff Ogilvy, ranked 152nd.

See what I'm saying? The difference between Woods and Bowditch is impossible to quantify. It is an exercise in futility, like bench pressing a shower rod.

There was no world ranking when Arnold Palmer played, but we knew he was The King. There was no world ranking when Jack Nicklaus was in his prime, but we knew he was The Bear. And when Woods is healthy, there is no debate about his place on the golf food chain.

Since the world ranking began in 1986, there have been 16 different players ranked No. 1, from Bernhard Langer (three weeks) to Woods (682 weeks). Kaymer spent eight weeks atop the ranking in 2011, but doesn't sound like he enjoyed the experience.

"A lot of people think it's a good feeling to be No. 1 in the world and it makes you very proud," said Kaymer after Friday's round of 69 that left him with a 1-shot lead after 36 holes. "It's nice to be up there, but it comes with a lot of pressure and a lot of expectations from others and subconsciously from yourself."

But here's the thing: Even when the world ranking formula said Kaymer was No. 1, Kaymer knew better. By his own admission, his game wasn't complete. If it were, he said, he wouldn't have begun to change his swing in 2011.

You don't get a trophy for being ranked No. 1. You get expectations. You get pressure.

Kaymer said he learned a lesson about being ranked No. 1: It's just a number, not a mandate. It guarantees nothing. It doesn't make you play any better.

"As long as you know that and don't try to please everyone, it's a lot easier to manage," he said.

Tom Lehman was No. 1 for a week. Greg Norman was No. 1 for 333 weeks. Does anyone remember that? Does it matter?

Forget about the OWGR formula. The best player in the world at this moment is Watson, followed by Kuchar and Jimmy Walker. (Honorable mention: Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed). Not that Bubba cares.

"Nobody is trying harder because they can be No. 1," said Watson. "It's still a golf tournament, they're trying to win it ... If one of us [Kuchar, Scott, Stenson or Watson] wins this week and becomes No. 1 in the world, that's great. But our ultimate goal is to win the golf tournament, no matter what place you're trying to move to in the world."

I know where I would rank Bubba's answer.

No. 1.