| Bunker Mentality
Mike Wilson reflects on the risers and fallers in the men’s global game and attempts to identify the modern-day greats.
A review of the modern-day greats’ rise and fall in the men’s global game.
Over the years golfers come and go, some even come back again for a second shot at stardom, whilst other disappear almost as mysteriously as they originally appeared, which is why greatness in golf needs to be measured if not in generations, then certainly in decades.
It’s hardly the breaking news to announce that, 10 years ago, one Tiger Woods was leading the Official World Golf Ranking (OWGR). Perhaps slightly more noteworthy is that Spaniard Sergio García was on his coat-tails in second place way back then, followed by Tiger’s great rival Phil Mickelson, Irishman Pádraig Harrington in fourth, with Fijian Vijay Singh competing for the top five.
Five years on, in December 2013, it is arguably more newsworthy that Tiger remained as golf’s Alpha Male, considering his meteoric and catastrophic fall from grace when colliding with a tree and fire hydrant outside his Florida home in November 2009.
By then, Spaniard García had collapsed, back in 20th place, fallen out of love with the game as he fought - and consistently failed - to win a Major title he craved, and, in truth, his talent deserved.
Big Phil, courtesy of a maiden Open Championship win at Muirfield was still up there in fourth, the ‘Ice Man’ cometh, Henrik Stenson, inside the top-10 five years earlier. One notable entrant into the top-50, in 49th place, Rory McIlroy, the new kid on the block, the heir apparent to Tiger’s crown as the best - and at his best - unbeatable exponent of men’s professional golf.
Up to the arrival on the scene in 1997 of the utterly dominant force that was Tiger Woods, #1 in the OWGR alternated, on merit, between Bernhard Langer, the world’s first world #1. Followed by, at various times, Seve and Greg Norman, who traded blows like a pair of heavyweight prize-fighters, top spot changing hands between the pair on no fewer than 10 occasions.
Norman, a credible candidate for the best golfer of all time - he was competing and winning in an era of unprecedented talent at the top - went on to top the OWGR six more times, 11 in total. Faldo, Woosnam, Couples, Els and Woods all dared to take the Great White Shark down a peg or two, holding arguably the most highly-prized accolade in the game for the last time in December 1998.
Enter Tiger Woods.
Others came and went. Ernie Els, David Duval, Vijay Singh, who was the last man to top the rankings in March 2005 before Woods went on a quite extraordinary run of winning golf, staying at #1 until Lee Westwood briefly
inherited the crown for an unbroken run of 281 successive weeks at the summit.
Still more heirs apparent, from German wunderkind Martin Kaymer, who managed eight weeks on top. Luke Donald (56), Rory McIlroy, 95 weeks across seven spells at #1, a disappointing return for a young man expected to sweep all before him. Adam Scott was making a fleeting appearance at the top in 2014, on the back of his 2013 Masters victory.
Since then, Jordan Spieth and Jason Day performed a lightweight version of the ‘Seve and the Shark show’. The American holding top spot four times to the Australian’s three, before Dustin Johnson, his enfant terrible days seemingly behind him becoming Numero Uno in February last year, a position he is yet to relinquish.
And, whilst those who reached the summit but were unable to set-up camp there could rightly claim to have been, on a given week in a particular year to have been the best player on the planet. Others, most notably Justin Rose, Phil Mickelson - alongside García, surely the best players never to have been OWGR #1 - Henrik Stenson and Harrington have, like Mickelson and García, made their mark by way of longevity.
To date, only 20 men in the world of professional golf since the-then IMG boss Mark H McCormack introduced the result of a series of Byzantine, complicated mathematical calculation (now we know what he did during those interminable hours spent in the air) have been able to call themselves, ‘World number-one.’
Who’s next in line to halt the inexorable march of power-golfer Dustin Johnson at the top of the world and become the 21st holder of the coveted crown?
Of the runners and riders on endurance and durability, it would have to be Sergio García, a decade close to the summit. In practice, more probably relative newcomers, Justin Thomas or García’s compatriot John Rahm or Japanese youngster Hideki Matsuyama, who would, if successful, become the first Asian player in the 32-year history of the OWGR. Quite a feat if he can achieve that.
But, Greg Norman, #1 on the OWGR for 331 weeks over 11 spells in the midst of the most in-depth competitiveness in world golf; or Tiger Woods, 623 weeks across 10 spells covering 13 years, which of the two is – at least in terms of the OWGR – first amongst equals?
Probably Norman, based mainly on who else was around and interrupting his inexorable march to the top. But, let there be no doubt. If Woods, back now in the top-1,000 were to claw his way back to the summit of the sport, now that would be the greatest achievement not only in golf but in modern-day sport.
Tiger Woods celebrates after winning his maiden Major at the Masters in 1997
Greg Norman, #1 on the OWGR for 331 weeks over 11 spells in the midst of the most indepth competitiveness in world golf
Dustin Johnson became the world number one golfer since February 2017, a position he is yet to relinquish