Descrambling the No. 1 ranking scenarios

August, 10, 2010
08/10/10
12:00
PM ET

One repeating storyline during the seemingly endless downward spiral of Tiger Woods in 2010 has been the potential for Phil Mickelson to overtake Tiger as the No. 1 golfer in the world. The numbers have become so close that there are three men who could be the world's No. 1 after this weekend at Whistling Straits, and there would be four if Lee Westwood weren't injured.

Trivia question

Defending champion Y.E. Yang was just the third international winner at the PGA Championship in the 2000s. Can you name the other two? (Answer below.)

Mickelson has time and time again come up short when the window, and sometimes barn door, has swung open for him to claim the top spot on the planet. Now, it's basically a free-for-all for the first time in ages.

The only way for Woods to control his destiny in the world rankings is to win the PGA Championship. If he doesn't pick up major title No. 15 -- which would be the most shocking win of his career, probably more so than his hobbled win at Torrey Pines in the 2008 U.S. Open -- a myriad of possibilities will emerge.

Mickelson can become the world's No. 1 golfer in any of the following ways:
• If he wins the PGA Championship.
• If he finishes second and Woods finishes outside the top three.
• If he finishes third and Woods finishes outside the top 11.
• If he finishes fourth, Woods finishes outside the top 46 and Steve Stricker doesn't win.
• If he ties for fourth with one other player, Woods misses the cut and Stricker doesn't win.

Although Westwood's name has been thrown into the top-ranking fray since immediately after the Open Championship, we have a new contender in the "who's No. 1" shuffle. Ladies and gentlemen, Steve Stricker!

Stricker is like Westwood, Sergio Garcia and Kenny Perry in that they are the best active players who have not won a major championship. Stricker was fourth among players in the world top 30 at the time of the Open Championship (behind those three men) in the Numbers Game Almost Index, which measures the careers of the best players without a major win.

Stricker must win to become the world's No. 1 golfer and have all of the following happen:
• Woods finishes outside the top 24.
• Mickelson finishes outside the top three.
• If Westwood were playing, there would be an additional caveat: Westwood not finishing runner-up.

The engineers of the Official World Golf Ranking formula are probably excited that Westwood won't be playing this weekend at the PGA Championship. If he were, there would have been a distinct possibility that he, too, could become No. 1. He wouldn't even have needed to win his first major championship to do it.

Westwood has been so close so many times in recent years. Since Tiger's last major win at the 2008 U.S. Open, Westwood has finished T-3 or better five times in majors, including in four of the past five major championships played. While Louis Oosthuizen was sprinting laps around the field at St. Andrews, Westwood sneaked up the leaderboard to finish second by himself.

It won't happen this weekend with Westwood resting the calf injury that has nagged him this year. If he were playing, though, these are a few possibilities of how Westwood could have become No. 1:
• Win while Woods doesn't finish second.
• Finish second while Mickelson finishes third or worse with Woods outside the top four. • Finish third with Woods finishing outside the top 13, Mickelson outside the top four and Stricker not winning.
• Finish fourth with Woods missing the cut, Mickelson finishing seventh or worse and Stricker not winning.

So had Westwood and the rest of the top four players in the world teed it up at Whistling Straits, three different players could have taken over No. 1 (Westwood, Stricker, Mickelson), and two of them (Westwood, Stricker) could have done so without winning a major or being No. 1 before this week.

The mere fact that Westwood could have been the best golfer in the world without winning a major championship will open the system up for criticism, although one can argue that he's been the most consistent force on the global stage during the past two years. Eventually overtaking Woods and Mickelson down the road would be an enormous testament to that.

There are several reasons golf fans shouldn't feel confident in any particular pick to win the PGA Championship.

Players outside the top 30 in the world rankings have won six of the past seven major championships. Mickelson at the Masters this year (ranked third in the world at the time of his win) is the lone exception to this rule.

In the past eight majors, there have been eight different champions. Since Padraig Harrington swept the Tiger-less second half of the 2008 major season, there hasn't been a repeat winner in the group.

Since the 2008 PGA Championship, the list is Harrington-Miguel Angel Cabrera-Lucas Glover-Stewart Cink-Y.E. Yang-Mickelson-Graeme McDowell-Oosthuizen. This is the longest stretch since 2002 to '05, when 12 consecutive majors ('02 Open -- '05 U.S. Open) were won by 12 different players. (Woods won one major.)


This got lost in the Woods carnage you saw on highlight shows, but Hunter Mahan actually won the WGC-Bridgestone this past weekend. Even with a young American finding the top spot on the leaderboard at that prestigious event, 11 of the past 16 PGA Tour winners have been international players. Six of the past nine major winners have come from outside the United States, and there have been 11 first-time tour winners in 2010.

With these facts in mind, here are a few contenders to keep an eye on:
• Retief Goosen wouldn't be a first-time anything with a win this week, but he would fit the international trend nicely. The Goose tied for third on Sunday at Bridgestone and is tied with Matt Kuchar for the most top-10s on the PGA Tour this year with eight.

• Speaking of Kuchar, he would fit into the first-time major winner mold. The former college star had a quiet start to his PGA Tour career but won in October for the second time on the tour and has been a model of consistency this season. Kuchar has finished in the top 10 in five of his past seven starts dating back to the Memorial and was T-3 in the field in greens in regulation last week (51-for-72).

• The pick from Numbers Game, though, is Rory McIlroy. If it weren't for a clearly flustered second round in the wind at St. Andrews, he likely would have been the story in Scotland, not Mr. Oosthuizen. McIlroy tied for third there and ninth this past weekend in Akron, Ohio. McIlroy has three top-10s in eight career major starts and three more top-10s at WGC events for good measure.

Video game and addiction source "Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11" featured McIlroy with the game's namesake this year. If McIlroy wins the PGA Championship and performs well at a Tiger-free Ryder Cup, EA Sports may consider making him the only person on the cover for next year's game.


The Elias Sports Bureau provided us with more insight into Tiger Woods' "performance" at Bridgestone this past weekend -- and how his recent play compares to the other worst stints of his career.

Woods has now played seven straight rounds at worse than par dating back to his 67 in the opening round at St. Andrews. As you might imagine, this had never happened in his pro career, adding to the list of negative feats he has achieved in 2010.

Woods may still be No. 1 in the world, but as ESPN.com golf writer Jason Sobel pointed out this week, he's currently 119th in the FedEx Cup points standings. If he doesn't move up in the rankings this week, it's possible that he won't even qualify for the events within the FedEx Cup playoffs -- the Barclays, Deutsche Bank, BMW and Tour Championship.

Trivia answer

Question: Defending champion Y.E. Yang was just the third international winner at the PGA Championship in the 2000s. Can you name the other two?

Answer: Vijay Singh in 2004 and Padraig Harrington in 2008.

Pete Dye and his 900-plus bunkers at Whistling Straits won't help his cause.

Justin Ray has been a studio researcher for ESPN since June 2008 and is the lead researcher for "The Scott Van Pelt Show." He is a 2007 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, where he studied convergence media. Send comments and suggestions to Justin.Ray@espn.com.

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