Looking Out For Number Ones

PALM HARBOR, FLORIDA | It has become increasingly fashionable, in the misguided opinions of too many critics with too little else on their minds, to bang on the Official World Golf Rankings and the perceived meaninglessness of being No. 1.

The twittery din reached a deafening roar last year when Lee Westwood and Luke Donald both did time at the top spot. The problem, according to all the uncommon scolds, was that neither of those two players had ever won a major championship.


Here’s a news flash:

It’s harder to reach No. 1 than it is to win a major championship. Much harder.

Consider this list: Tiger Woods, Greg Norman, Nick Faldo, Seve Ballesteros, Fred Couples, Ernie Els, Bernhard Langer, Tom Lehman, Vijay Singh, Nick Price, Ian Woosnam, David Duval and Martin Kaymer.

These are all the players who, along with Donald and Westwood, have achieved No. 1 since the rankings were introduced prior to the 1986 Masters.

Not a stiff in the bunch. (Okay, Duval is a ghost of his former golfing self. But he was great once.) Extra style points this week, by the way, go to Donald who wrested back the top spot from McIlroy by winning a four-way playoff in Florida.

Now, consider this list: Steve Jones, Scott Simpson, Larry Mize, Paul Lawrie, Ben Curtis, Todd Hamilton, Mark Brooks, Y.E. Yang, Rich Beem and Wayne Grady.

All fine players. All major champions since 1986. But none of them ever sniffed a serious whiff of No. 1 at any point during their careers.

Now, tell me if you still think it’s harder to win a major championship than it is to scale the rankings mountaintop.

Part of the problem starts with the players themselves. “I think that (winning a major) would make my résumé look a lot better,” Donald said last week before the Transitions Championship began.

“It seems like the guys prepare harder to play The Masters,” chimed in defending Masters champion Charl Schwartzel.

“I would probably say winning a major is harder,” added 54-hole Transitions co-leader Retief Goosen.

The opinion here is that The Goose is wrong.

It should be noted that Goosen has won two majors but has never been No. 1. It should also be noted that part of this discussion is all about adjectives. While it may be “better” to win a major, it is clearly “harder” to become No. 1.

Add to all of this the problem with the computers that ingest and spit out the data that determine No. 1. Everybody in the universe, except the techies that run the computers, agree that not enough weight is given to the major championships.

This is a separate debate with an easy solution. Triple the mathematical heft of the major championships and that imbalance goes away overnight.

In 2011, the world rating value for the top five weighted events broke out like this: PGA Championship 839 points, Open Championship 792 points, Masters 762 points, U.S. Open 734 points, WGC-Bridgestone Invitational 730 points.

That the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational is that close in importance to the U.S. Open is patently preposterous.

But none of any of this is the fault of Westwood or Donald. They didn’t devise the system. All they did was play consistently terrific golf over a prolonged period to earn No. 1

Yet, they continue to catch heat because they still haven’t caught lightning in a bottle on the right week at the right venue. But that’s the good thing about the world rankings: You can’t catch No. 1 in a bottle.

It’s based on a points system that counts a minimum of 40 of a player’s most recent events. It is meant to identify who’s playing the best over a prolonged period of time with weight given to strength of field.

Nick Faldo, a former No. 1 and a six-time major champion, is fond of pointing out that any player in his right mind, given the choice, would rather have a green jacket in his closet than No. 1 on his (start ital.) curriculum vitae (end ital.).

And he’s probably right. But does that mean we should hold Tour journeymen Tommy Aaron, George Archer and Charles Coody – all former Masters champions – in higher esteem than Westwood or Donald?

It has become way too easy to recognize the inequity in a rankings system that has a bad odor and lay the fault for that inequity at the feet of two Englishmen who have never won a major championship. It’s like blaming the Johnstown flood on a leaky faucet in Altoona.

With apologies to Faldo, I’ll take Donald’s or Westwood’s career body of work every time over Aaron’s or Coody’s one-hit Masters wonder status.

Donald arrived at the Transitions having top-tenned in 22 of his last 42 PGA Tour events. In 2011, he finished first on the European and U.S. money lists. That has to and must count for a lot. Critical snobs be damned.

To be sure, what Donald and Westwood have done is more difficult, if not more important, than winning a major.

Which is not to say making a six-foot putt for the U.S. Open is easy. It’s just that – to paraphrase Ben Crenshaw – anybody can hit it on the right jerk.

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