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Monday, October 11, 2010
With a change at No. 1 due, what's next?


This was inevitable. Whether he maintained the world's No. 1 ranking for another decade, continuing this reign into the latter stages of his career, or faltered along the way, enabling another player to overtake his position, there was always bound to be a day when Tiger Woods was no longer the best golfer in the world -- according to the number-crunching, at least.

That day will be Oct. 31, 2010.

With Woods failing to claim an individual title in a dozen appearances so far this season, he will be passed on the Official World Golf Ranking by gritty English pro Lee Westwood in less than three weeks.

After more than a half-decade atop the list for Woods, this will mark a historic occasion, but hardly an unprecedented one. On Labor Day of 2004, he was ousted from the spot by Vijay Singh, who was in the midst of a nine-win campaign. The two men parried for the honor well into the next season, when Woods took such a stranglehold of the top spot that he hasn't relinquished it until now.

Don't expect him to claim it back so efficiently this time around.

The OWGR is golf's version of the Bowl Championship Series formula that exists in college football. Take a healthy dose of numbers, punch 'em into a computer and watch it spit out the results. Although at least the BCS takes into account popular opinion; there's none of that in the OWGR.

Without getting too deep into what could be a mind-numbing explanation, the ranking is based on a two-year rolling calendar which measures a player's credentials through results and strength of fields. Sure, Woods -- or any other golfer, really -- could climb back into the No. 1 position by simply playing dominant golf, but there are other factors at work here, too.

The OWGR uses a 40-tournament minimum for this two-year period, meaning players who fail to reach that number are invariably penalized by not competing more often. This hasn't been a detriment to Woods in the past, as he often carries a total below that standard, but without any wins this season, it will be more difficult for him to regain those points.

The truth is, it's surprising that it took this long for Woods to be ousted from this position. Last year, Sergio Garcia -- remember him? -- had an opportunity to surpass him, but couldn't do it. Phil Mickelson had more than a dozen such chances this year, but faltered every time.

And so now the man who will become the 13th top-ranked player since the OWGR was introduced in 1986 is Westwood, though he is not without fault, either. A perennial bridesmaid at the major championships, he will join Fred Couples and David Duval as the only players to reach this level prior to winning one of golf's four big events. The honor could be fleeting, though, as Westwood has announced he will take a leave of absence until next month due to a recurring ankle injury.

That leaves the door open for Woods, Mickelson or the world's hottest player right now in Martin Kaymer, who has won each of his last three individual starts, including the PGA Championship, to elevate into the No. 4 position on the ranking.

Expect the subject to be a hot topic at the upcoming HSBC Champions event in Shanghai on Nov. 4-7, where each of those three players -- along with Westwood, depending on that injury -- will be teeing it up with No. 1 on the line. It will likely hold as an underlying subplot to the season's final few noteworthy tournaments and well into next year, when the ranking could be up for grabs on virtually a weekly basis.

Really, though, becoming the best player in the world -- by the numbers, at least -- is a marathon, not a sprint. Of the 12 players who have been No. 1, only four (Woods, Nick Faldo, Greg Norman and Seve Ballesteros) held the honor for more than a full calendar year. Ascending to the top spot is an impressive accomplishment, but it will be the player who remains there over the long term who truly comes out on top.

Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn.com.