Between April 1997 and October 2010, just five players laid claim to the top spot in the men’s world rankings. Only five in over 13 years! Yes, the dominance of a certain Tiger Woods was a significant factor, but Ernie Els, Greg Norman, David Duval and Vijay Singh all dethroned the Tiger King at various stages.
Fast-forward a decade and the golfing landscape has changed dramatically (as most sports did and do). Woods may be a pale shadow of the force he once was – injury and age will do that – but the Green Jacket in his closet is a sharp reminder for anybody with a weak memory, but the game has moved on, and with it came the chaotic upheaval typical in the aftermath of empirical decline.
Since Tiger last held the top ranking in 2013, the face at golf’s summit has changed an incredible 31 times, with five different golfers occupying the hot seat this year alone. In the 35-year history of the OWGR, never has there been such competition at the sharp end of the rankings.
Justin Thomas returned from lockdown as the world number three; a WGC win, a runner-up, and three additional top-10s, all in 10 starts, JT is still ranked number three. Bryson DeChambeau’s form line is eerily similar; a win and four top-10s in 10 starts and the big boy has only managed to rise three spots to number nine.
The business end of the rankings is littered with such cases because the reality is that the standard has never been higher. Yes, Woods may have taken the game to a level not seen before or since, but he was ploughing a lone furrow.
Over the next four years, at least one of Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau, Xander Schauffele, Collin Morikawa, Tommy Fleetwood, Patrick Cantlay, Justin Rose, Gary Woodland, Viktor Hovland, Matt Wolff, Jason Day, Adam Scott or Jordan Spieth won’t win a major. In fact, it’s highly likely that half the cohort listed above will never [again] be in the winner’s circle at a major championship.
With cutting edge ball and club technology, a new style of player has filled the ranks on the major golf tours. The proclivity to “bomb and gouge” has allowed a certain breed of golfer to earn a very good living on the couple of weeks a year where the stars align and they match a good putting week with a good week off the tee and bludgeon their way to a high-six or seven figure payday. But that’s not going to cut the mustard at the top of the world rankings.
Sure, DJ, Rahm, Thomas, McIlroy and Koepka are big hitters, but it would be incredibly disingenuous to use the word “bomber.” Certain players are wedge specialists, others wield the putter like a magic wand, and others still are capable of getting the ball up and down from inside a dustbin, but to push your way to the top of the world rankings, you need to be great at all of these.
Rory’s slide from first to fourth in the rankings coincided with a marginal dip in approach play and his putter going a little cold. For more than a decade, Tiger Woods’ B-game was enough to win with regularity and with his A+-game it was a foregone conclusion. We had the recent pleasure of watching Dustin Johnson win by 11 when he brought his A-game to TPC Boston, but a week later his incredible play was bested by Jon Rahm who caught fire at the firm and fast Olympia Fields.
We may never again see the quality of play that Woods displayed throughout the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, but the truth is that Tiger was so far ahead of the chasing pack that he could take a nine-month layoff following the 2008 US Open and still not come close to losing his number one ranking.
But the landscape is very different now. The PGA Tour has always been golf’s premier testing ground, but increased prize money and competition has strengthened its grip and now the standard across the board has never been better.
With five more major championships to look forward to in the next 10 months, there has never been a better time to be an armchair golf fan.
Enjoy it. We may never see the likes of this again.