Is anyone getting closer to challenging Tiger Woods?

Sergio Garcia, HSBC Champions
Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images
Sergio Garcia is now ranked No. 2 behind Tiger Woods.

Sergio Garcia is golf's new No. 2 according to the world golf ranking, passing Phil Mickelson by virtue of his victory at the rain-delayed HSBC Champions in Shanghai, China, on Monday.

Should we care?

The real question should be: Is anyone getting closer to Tiger Woods, or at least looking like a potentially worthy rival for 2009?

Depending on the evidence we consider from the second half of 2008, we could make an argument that the chase pack is gaining on Woods or falling further behind. Here's a scorecard to help us sort it all out:

Closer: The way he won the British Open and PGA Championship, Padraig Harrington seems to have taken over Tiger's lease on timely, ridiculously good putting. Also, Paddy has twice defeated Woods head-to-head.

Further away: Phil Mickelson, one of only a handful of players whose skill set comes anywhere near Tiger's, did pretty much nothing while Woods was away. For hockey fans, that's like failing to score on the power play.

Closer: Davis Love III, another player in the upper echelon of talent, won for the first time in more than two years at the Disney on Sunday. He'll be motivated to make the 2009 Presidents Cup team, coached by his friend Fred Couples.

Further away: Most every other Fall Series winner was just trying to keep his card. Cameron Beckman! Ryan Palmer! Billy Ray Brown! (OK, Billy Ray no longer plays, but I think those other two won something.)

Closer: Garcia seems to be contending every time he plays now, and he isn't even 30. In 2008, he finally made some big putts outside the Ryder Cup.

Further away: John Daly's natural ability, though mostly untapped, has been said to rival Tiger's, but his problems continue off the course. He made an unscheduled trip to a North Carolina drunk tank after a late night at Hooters this fall.

Closer: Tiger's knee will inevitably be weaker and his swing rustier in 2009, meaning he will more than likely come back to the field.

Further away: Rocco Mediate also looked a little rusty after the U.S. Open.

Closer: Vijay Singh, the last person to take Tiger's No. 1 ranking, will be confident after winning three late tournaments and the FedEx Cup in 2008.

Further away: Jason Day, touted as a possible rival to Tiger in the pages of GOLF Magazine last January, struggled to another lackluster finish at the Disney and finished outside the top 125 on the money list.

Closer: As much as Day disappointed, Anthony Kim sizzled, winning on two major-worthy venues (Quail Hollow and Congressional) and trouncing Garcia in the Ryder Cup. Hunter Mahan could also have a big '09.

Further away: Ernie Els and Retief Goosen, among the game's so-called Big Five not long ago, look further past their primes with every passing major.

Closer: Despite rumors that Augusta National would roll back the golf course to the way it was when Tiger and Phil dominated (i.e. no trees), the club announced relatively minor changes for 2009. It's still anybody's ballgame!

Further away: Tiger plays Bethpage Black, site of June's U.S. Open, almost as well as he plays Torrey Pines.

Closer: Camilo Villegas won two FedEx Cup playoff events for his first and second career victories and will rush into 2009 more confident than ever. He hits Tiger's stinger and, even more threatening to a workout worrywart like Woods, he has bigger arms.

Further away: The guys with the biggest upside — Garcia, Kim, Mahan, Villegas and J.B. Holmes — are by definition the youngest, least experienced players. Golf is a mind game, and Woods didn't hurt that part of his body.

Further away: Kim and Villegas may not threaten Tiger in as many regular Tour events because they may be playing overseas, having recently joined the European Tour.

Further away: If the field couldn't beat Tiger when he had one good leg, how are they going to beat him when he's got one and three-quarters good legs?

Judge's decision: With only one or two hiccups, Woods still rules by a large margin in 2009.

 

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