Tiger Woods has held the No. 1 spot in the Official World Golf Rankings for an astounding 682 weeks in his career. After a multi-year hiatus, he returned to the top spot last March with a win at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, his third victory at that early point in the season. Tiger would add two more wins, at The Players and Firestone, to take what appeared to be another insurmountable hold on No. 1. The major drought persisted, but Woods was back as the game's most dominant force, the player of the year, and would probably be the unchallenged No. 1 again for many more months, if not years.
Now just a year after that early-season success, Tiger is injured again and going to lose the top ranking, and very likely this week at TPC Sawgrass. Woods has finished only two tournaments this year, and only one on the PGA Tour. But still the chasers have been unable to crack the top spot, with players like Adam Scott, Henrik Stenson, and Jason Day failing to meet the opportunity at different points in the past two months. But with all the money and world ranking points on the line at this week's "fifth major," we're now closer than ever to Tiger getting bumped. So close, that one player would pass him if he opted not to play this week's event.
Here's a rundown of the four guys who can overtake Tiger this week. They're all superstars who should be in contention, and after a sluggish first half of the season, the PGA Tour needs them to pick it up during their biggest week of the year.
Current World Ranking: 2
How to get to No. 1: Finish in a two-way tie for 16th or better
Yes, Scott would overtake Woods if he just packed it up and didn't play this week -- that's how complex, or convoluted, the rankings calculations can get. Scott, the 2004 winner here, facetiously exclaimed, "See you later!" at his press conference on Wednesday, but he's obviously going to go for the cash and another signature victory.
Rory McIlroy favored at TPC Sawgrass
Tiger's absence looms over the PGA Tour, but his Nike friend Rory McIlroy assumes the role of the favorite at its biggest event of the year.
Tiger may have won the PGA Tour's Player of the Year honors at the end of the season in September, but in the full calendar year of 2013, Scott was probably the best player in the world. The Aussie took a different tone this week when asked about the No. 1 spot, saying he was unaware of what he needed to do to get the top spot. The Aussie almost appeared on edge as the ranking question came up again, demonstrably stating to the inquirer, "I haven't been thinking about No. 1 that much, obviously -- look, I'm here to win golf tournaments."
That was a departure from how he'd answered that question at prior tournaments this year where he had a chance to become No. 1. At Doral, Bay Hill and the Masters, Scott reiterated that getting to No. 1 was a dream of his and said he was well-aware of what he was chasing. In November, he put it all out there as a goal in the 2014 season:
"It's been a dream of mine, like it's a dream of every other kid's to be number one and I'm as close as I've ever been. I'm not going to stop dreaming of it just because Tiger Woods holds the No. 1 spot."
Scott has the perfect game for success at TPC Sawgrass. He's got what most consider to be the best swing on earth, and rarely goes wild off the tee. Pete Dye's Stadium Course demands that driving accuracy more than most stops on Tour in this era. He's won here before, continues to play some of the best golf in the world, and should be able to pull it off and attain that childhood goal.
Adam Scott can make his high school yearbook ambition come true this week: pic.twitter.com/9mbD1BCa1V— No Laying Up (@NoLayingUp) May 7, 2014
Current World Ranking: 3
How to get to No. 1: Finish in a two-way tie for 6th or better
Like Scott, Stenson is another former champion who could have claimed Player of the Year honors after the award for the American tour was handed out to Tiger in the fall. Stenson pulled off a remarkable sweep of both the PGA Tour (FedExCup) and Euro Tour (Race to Dubai) playoffs, stacking more cash than he could ever spend and completing the comeback from obscurity and a drop outside the top 225 in the world rankings. It was a precipitous fall for the Swede, who went from a 2009 Players Championship win to spending major championship weeks totally off the map playing at his local club member events.
He's back as a legit top-5 player, finishing second and third in the final two majors of the year before going on that postseason run (which we may never see again). It was going to be impossible to keep up that same pace this year, and he has cooled off a bit, failing to really contend in several early starts on the Euro Tour and subsequently over in the States. But this is the course that jumpstarted his career, and jumpstarted his amazing 2013 season. He's actually got the best scoring average at this event, better than Tiger, so the "horses for courses" cliche applies. Even if he's not playing his best, it will be a surprise if he's not around on the weekend making noise on the first page of the leaderboard. He just needs a little help from Scott ahead of him.
Current World Ranking: 4
How to get to No. 1: Finish in solo second or win
Bubba is the best player in the world this season. He's won at Riviera and Augusta, and had two runner-up finishes preceding those two wins. And while some might sidestep when asked about the importance of the rankings, Bubba joked this week that he would retire if he got to to No. 1 (and added how much it means to sponsors and your career).
Last month I wrote that Bubba's run at the Masters is just beginning, as Augusta is a course that sets up perfectly for him, a lefty who bombs it off the tee with high fades. TPC Sawgrass is the opposite. The two-time Masters champ even admitted it this week, stating "Me and the golf course don't see eye to eye." Bubba is one of those players who you can often tell right away how he's going to do that week at his press conference before the tourney even starts. I remember his unenthusiastic words for Olympic following his first Masters win, and you knew on Tuesday that he probably wasn't going to make the weekend.
And he's being honest about his relationship with Dye's Stadium Course, as his best result at this event is a T37. The course neutralizes his distance advantage off the tee on most holes. You've got to get the ball in the fairway here, and Bubba's distance isn't much of an advantage on the par-5s, three of which are gettable in two for both long and short hitters. He just can't get comfortable sightlines to hit those uniquely creative shot shapes that no one else usually contemplates at most Tour venues. With the way he's playing, Bubba will have his chances to make multiple runs at No. 1, just not this week.
Current World Ranking: 5
How to get to No. 1: Win
The 2012 champ Kuchar hands the trophy off to Tiger after last year's Players. (Debby Wong/USA TODAY Sports)
Kuchar has probably been the most consistent player in the world through the first four months of the year, but he'll need the most help and need to win his second Players in the last three years. The lanky Georgia Tech product has made boatloads of cash on the PGA Tour over the past four years, but he's without a major. He's so consistently good that he sometimes takes criticism for all the money made from top 10 results, while having only seven PGA Tour wins and no majors.
But the victories in recent years have been at the top events -- that Players title, a WGC Match Play win, and at the Memorial, a tournament that always attracts the top talent. Kuchar has been inside the OWGR top 5 often over the past few years, but this is his first real shot to get to No. 1. If he maintains recent form -- a win and four straight top 5 finishes in his last five events -- there will be more opportunities throughout the summer.
If Bubba or Kuchar were able to do it this week, they'd become the first American player not named Tiger Woods to get to No. 1 since David Duval held the spot in 1999. They'd also be just the fifth American achieve that status, adding their name to a list with Woods, Duval, Tom Lehman and Fred Couples.
The math for rankings system may be tough to figure out, but every player, especially the four with a chance to get to No. 1, alludes to the importance of such a distinction and what it would mean for their careers. And taking it from Tiger, as opposed to ... say, Martin Kaymer, at an event with the strongest field of the year would be another signature achievement for some of the best guys the game has going right now.