Tiger Woods held the No. 1 ranking for 281 consecutive weeks.
Fred Vuich/SI
Thursday, December 08, 2011

England's Lee Westwood will become the new No. 1-ranked player in golf Monday morning, the inevitable coda to a 2010 that Tiger Woods would just as soon forget.

"It's a great honor and a big responsibility," Westwood said. "It certainly sounds and feels good right now."

His ascent to golf's No. 1 ranking for the first time in his 17-year pro career has been nothing if not unconventional.

For one thing, he hasn't even been playing golf, instead following the fortunes of a racehorse he owns — Hoof It, which recently won a race at 9-1 odds — while resting his battered body.

"All I did for a week was sit with my foot in the air and then I started in the gym last week," he wrote on his website, leewestwood.com, last week. "I was just about to start practicing when a bout of flu sidelined me again."

Westwood's reign at the top could be brief, depending on what happens at this week's HSBC Champions in Shanghai, where he will compete in a loaded field that also includes Woods, Phil Mickelson and Martin Kaymer.

All three players would take over No. 1 with a win.

Once known as "the English Tiger Woods," Westwood missed much of the summer, including the PGA Championship, with a right calf injury. He returned for the Ryder Cup in Wales, where he went 2-1-1 to lead Europe to a narrow victory.

It was a short-lived return to action, though, because while playing Kingsbarns at the Alfred Dunhill Cup a week later, Westwood accidentally slid down a bank and aggravated his calf, again sending him home to rural England for more rest.

Still, he's played more than Woods, who until Nov. 1 had held the top ranking for 281 straight weeks and 623 weeks overall.

Woods missed parts of 2008 and 2009 after having his left knee surgically rebuilt. His infidelity, personal crisis and ensuing divorce led to a late start to his 2010 season, which sputtered. For the first time in his career Woods went without a victory, which in the two-year cycle of the World Ranking meant he wasn't replenishing the points from his four 2008 wins, most notably the U.S. Open, With those points dropping off the board in 2010, his insurmountable lead turned into an inevitable passing of the torch.

Westwood has 20 career victories on the European tour, the most recent two of which came at the end of the 2009 season. He racked up a handful of top-10s in Europe in 2010, finished runner-up to Phil Mickelson at the Masters and to Louis Oosthuizen at the British Open, and won the PGA Tour's St. Jude Classic in June.

The owner of a 50-acre farm in England, where he has a golf practice area, he becomes the first player without a major title to his name to take over the top spot in the world.

Kaymer, the 25-year-old German who won the PGA, had a chance to take the top spot had he finished no worse than a two-way tie for second at the Andalucia Valderrama Masters, which ended Sunday, but he never got much going and tied for 21st place.

In the 24-year history of the World Ranking, Ian Woosnam has been No. 1, as have Bernhard Langer, Seve Ballesteros, Greg Norman, Nick Faldo, Fred Couples, Nick Price, Tom Lehman, Ernie Els, David Duval and Vijay Singh.

The last player besides Woods to hold the top spot, Singh held the position for 32 weeks in 2004 and '05.

With Woods not starting his season until the Masters in April, and going without a win, he all but gift-wrapped the No. 1 ranking for one of his rivals, specifically Mickelson, the game's longtime No. 2 who has never held the top spot.

"If Phil plays the way he's supposed to this weekend," Woods said at one point, "then he'll be number one."

Such an eventuality would have played well across the country, where Phil-fever was widespread and perhaps even stronger than ever as his wife, Amy, and mother, Mary, battled breast cancer — and with the revelations of Tiger's misdeeds.

Alas, it didn't happen — yet. Mickelson put himself squarely on Tiger's bumper by winning the Masters in April, but the streaky lefty failed to take advantage of several opportunities to overtake Woods atop the points table. Mickelson needed a victory at the Quail Hollow Championship in early May, but finished second, the victim of Rory McIlroy's thrilling final-round 62.

Mickelson had opportunities at the Players Championship, and at the U.S. Open and British Open, but by his own admission did not play well after slipping on his third green jacket. Westwood, Woods, Kaymer and Mickelson all scheduled to play in the HSBC Champions at Shanghai this week, so any of the above could leave Sheshan Golf Club with the top ranking.

The game of hot potato could last for weeks to come, with the men's game coming to resemble the LPGA, where a handful of players have briefly held the top spot but no one has been able to hold onto it since Lorena Ochoa retired earlier this year.

That said, the new number one in the men's game might just end up being the old number one. Showing the fruits of a new swing, Woods thrashed Francesco Molinari 4 and 3 in his last appearance, his Monday singles match at the Ryder Cup. At least one observer expects order to be restored in 2011 if not sooner.

"I think he'll perform incredibly well," Ian Poulter said last week. "I think that [Ryder Cup singles] match was definitely a sneak preview. He wasn't swinging it his best for a long period of time, but he was still performing well, and now he's gone for a swing change. I can only see his swing getting better, and it will somehow resemble what it was when he played his best in 2000. I think he'll have an incredible year. He's pretty damn good."

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