— SAN DIEGO - If there was one thing we learned in the eight weeks Tiger Woods stayed away from the PGA Tour to tend to his wounded knee, it was this: A golf world without him would be devoid of a No. 1 player.
Oh, sure, if Woods were to suddenly leave the game and commit to, say, organizing international support to making bungee-jumping an Olympic sport, then it goes without saying that someone would inherit the top spot. That’s just part of the circle of life.
Right now, it would be Phil Mickelson, but as fascinating and entertaining and skillful as the left-hander is, he’s not worthy of being the world’s top-ranked player. Top-ranked storyline? Yes. Top-ranked flake? Quite possibly. But top-ranked player? No, not when he struggles so mightily at times and hasn’t a clue as to how to play links golf, which is mandatory for anyone who hopes to be No. 1.
During the Woods era, Mickelson is one of a handful of players to be ranked No. 2. Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, Jim Furyk, David Duval, and Retief Goosen, are among those who’ve been Avis at one time or another to Woods’ Hertz, but try as they might, they never have pushed past the incomparable one to sit at the summit for any substantial time.
(OK, Duval actually broke through and seized the No. 1 spot for a short time in 1999, but in one of the sport’s greatest mysteries he seemingly hated the view from the lofty penthouse and after losing his lease on it, he hasn’t quit falling from view. Singh also took hold of the top spot in 2004, which apparently perturbed Woods so much, when he regained it he learned to love the view even more; so much, in fact, that it will be years before he gives it up.)
The same reason that keeps Woods entrenched atop the world order helps explain why there truly isn’t a name out there who could be considered No. 1 in his absence. That is, the ability to contend each and every time the peg goes into the soft earth, in rain or heat, Right Coast or Left Coast, beach or desert, links or tree-lined, limited field or full field.
Consider how many times Woods has strung together three or more wins (five) or successfully defended his title or gone light years without missing a cut (remember, he holds the record, at 142). Then digest what those would-be challengers to the No. 1 residency have done in Woods’ absence:
- Mickelson never got into the thick of things at a great course (Quail Hollow) and against a stellar field at the Wachovia Championship, then he barely put up a fight in defense of his Players Championship crown. His magical short game came to life in a win at Colonial, but you’d be hard-pressed to say he competed at the Memorial. His grade during Woods’ absence: B-.
- No. 3 Adam Scott somehow held it together to win the Byron Nelson, which for the time being stifled the critics. But there was enough indifferent play at Wachovia and the Players Championship to warrant more support for the opinion that the talented young Aussie could use a little more consistency in his repertoire. Grade: B-.
- Jim Furyk quietly hangs around and does just enough to stay in the upper echelon, but never does he do enough to overwhelm you. Missing the cut at Colonial, finishing joint 27th at the Players, and tied for 39th at the Memorial show that he remains in search of his best form. Grade: C.
- Sergio Garcia broke through for his most important victory, the Players Championship, and he won over a few doubters when he thanked Woods for not being there. It was a slice of humility that the Spaniard has rarely shown, but an unspired effort at the Memorial and a roller-coaster performance in Memphis have followed, so a chance to truly seize a defining momentum has slipped away. Still, his alleged cure for his putting woes will be an intriguing storyline at this week’s U.S. Open and it will be yet another chance for the 28-year-old to prove he’s a worthy challenger to Woods. Grade: B+.
- Ernie Els is thoroughly confounding these days. There was a withdrawal from Wachovia, but a decent effort at the Players Championship (T-6). He missed the cut at the European PGA Championship — on his home course, no less — and couldn’t make up his mind about the next week’s Memorial. He was in, then he was out. Then he was in again, but finally he was out, at least after 36 holes, because he missed the cut. “War and Peace” is an easier read than Els’s game on the eve of the U.S. Open. Grade: C-.
- Since winning the Masters, Trevor Immelman has missed two cuts, finished T-30 at Memorial, and lost in a playoff at Memphis. Hardly the sort of consistency you’d expect of a world-class player. Class: C.
- Vijay Singh will be No. 1 again only when he’s a member of the Champions Tour. That won’t be for a few years, but in the meantime don’t look for him to seriously threaten Woods or even any of the top few spots in the world order. Nagging injuries are as much a part of his life these days as appearances in the hunt and at 45 you have to think that his workhorse days are catching up to him. He’s played just three times in Woods’ absence, including yet another disappointing missed-cut at the Players. Grade: C.
- Justin Rose is ranked sixth in the world without virtue of a PGA Tour win, which is an indictment of the word ranking system. While Woods was sidelined, the Englishman withdrew from Verizon, missed the cut at Wachovia and the Players, and finished tied for second at Memorial. Hardly would you consider that inspiring stuff. Grade: D+.
Throw in the fact that Anthony Kim followed his Wachovia win with lukewarm efforts at the Players (T-42) and Colonial (T-40), or the stagnant play of guys ranked 17th (Luke Donald) and 18th (Aaron Baddeley), or the perplexing play of late of Steve Stricker (four straight missed-cuts, dating back to the Masters), and you have an even deeper list of players who have proven that while they have flashes of brilliance, they can’t compare with the genius of Woods.
Then there is Ian Poulter, who earlier this year indicated that in due time, he will be a worthy challenger to Woods. The Englishman was ranked 22nd at the time, but currently sits No. 33rd.
Going backward. It seems to be the direction in which so many of the top-ranked players have gone of late, even with Woods having stepped aside to give them an easier road to assert themselves.