The curse of the world number one tag

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Tiger Woods isn’t the only former world number one struggling right now. Dave Tindall investigates the fate of former chart toppers.

While winning majors is usually the pinnacle of any golfer’s career, being ranked the best player in the world at some point is definitely on the bucket list.

Some will actively state they want to be the world number one. Tiger spent his childhood preparing for it. Others will play it down, mumbling about such a status being a natural bi-product of playing well and they’re happy to take it.

But, however it’s viewed, does it necessarily ensure years of unbridled success? After all, when you reach the summit and plant the flag, then what?

Although Tiger debunked the myth that there’s only way one to go – i.e. downwards – by being number one for an astonishing 683 weeks, a lot of the other chart toppers have also wilted.

To be that good and achieve the number one ranking, you might expect the fall down the charts to be a graceful and gradual one. That’s been far from the case. On a side note, fans can pass the time using golf betting with cryptocurrencies before the next tournament.

Let’s go back to 2008 as our ground zero as it was the last time Tiger won a major. At the time, he was deep into a 281-week run at the top that would go through until October 2010.

Lee Westwood dethroned him on October 31st, 2010. So what’s happened since then and how have the next batch of world number ones fared?

Lee Westwood (2010, 2011)
Westwood had 17 weeks at the top from October 2010 and another five during April/May 2011. Did he kick on? Not exactly. The Englishman managed just a single European Tour victory during his time as the holder of the world number one baton – the Ballantine’s Championship in a weak field in South Korea. Since giving it up, he has managed just two more European Tour victories, none on the PGA Tour and, of course, that wait for a first major goes on. He now resides at 60th in the world rankings.

Martin Kaymer (2011)
“Being world number one doesn’t really mean you are the best player. I didn’t feel that. It was a little bit too early for me,” said Kaymer when offering an honest and personal reflection of his first crack at being statistically the world’s best player. He missed the cut at Augusta National during his eight-week reign and, after that, slid down the rankings as if occupying number one had put a hex on him. He slumped to 63rd in early 2014 before bouncing back by winning the Players Championship and U.S. Open later that year. The struggles have returned, though, and a missed cut in last week’s Czech Open left him down at 72nd in the world rankings.

Luke Donald (2011, 2012)
Donald hit the top on May 29, 2011 when capturing the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth and flip-flopped with Rory McIlroy before returning to number one for the fourth time with a second win at Wentworth on May 27, 2012. Where is he now? Not even inside the world’s top 100. The Englishman hasn’t managed a single win since last vacating the summit five years ago and that means, like Westwood, turning number one didn’t give him the leg up towards a first major.

Rory McIlroy (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015)
In most eyes, Rory was the first real genuine world number one since Tiger in 2008. March 4th, 2012 was the day McIlroy finally made it to the top and you wouldn’t have got long odds on him enjoying an unbroken reign through to the current day. However, along came Jordan Spieth and then Dustin Johnson and Jason Day raised their games. In seven stints (54 the longest from August 2014 to August 2015), McIlroy has held the top ranking for 95 weeks but did he wear it well? It didn’t help bring him a first Masters and, overall, his performances in the majors whilst world number one weren’t as good as you might expect (more on that later).

Rory McIlroy

Tiger Woods (2013)
Perhaps slightly forgotten, Tiger had another 60 weeks at the top from March 25, 2013 to May 17, 2014. In that time he failed to add to his tally of 14 majors. His decline, injuries and off-course problems have been well-documented and Woods’ results in majors since he left top spot for what must surely be the last time are desperate: 69-MC-17-MC-MC-MC.

Adam Scott (2014)
The Aussie finally made it to the top of the mountain in May, 2014. Did replacing Tiger faze him? Scott lasted 11 weeks looking down on his rivals but, despite playing some solid golf, he didn’t manage as much as a top-three finish in that stretch. He’s recorded just two wins in three years since so it hardly gave him the belief to become a better golfer. Where now? 20th, his lowest world ranking since 2011.

Jordan Spieth (2015, 2016)
If reaching world number one is about ability and perseverance, perhaps staying there is more a measure of mental belief. Spieth has that in spades although he has still only managed half a year at number one (spells of two weeks, one week, three weeks and 20 weeks (November 2015 to March 2016). Rather than wilt under the added pressure, it’s more that Spieth finds himself up against a set of hungry younger players with amazing games and none of the existential ‘do I justify this’ doubts felt by Kaymer and perhaps Scott.

Jason Day (2015, 2016, 2017)
A younger and brasher Day talked about becoming world number one way before he’d achieved anything of note. But that unwavering self-belief played a big part in him getting to the top and, after trading the position with Spieth for a while, he had a 51-week run at the summit from March 2016 to February 2017. Only Tiger and Rory have held the position longer since Woods was a permanent fixture there from 2005-2010. Then again, Day was number three when landing the 2015 USPGA. He didn’t win another major when he got there.

Dustin Johnson (2017 – )
If you’re getting the idea that becoming world number one doesn’t buy you a golden ticket to success in the majors, how about the case of Dustin Johnson. DJ delivered on his incredible talent by reaching the top in February of this year after winning at Riviera. He then won his first two starts as the new world number one, the WGC events in Mexico and Texas. So far, so good. We’re then all expecting a huge year in the majors before he falls down the stairs at Augusta, withdraws from The Masters, misses the cut at the US Open, limps home in T54 at Royal Birkdale and manages T13 in the USPGA. To give that context, it’s the first year he has not had a top 10 in a major since coming onto the scene in 2008. Maybe the word ‘curse’ in the headline wasn’t too strong after all!

Current world rankings of those that have held the post since 2010:
Lee Westwood (60th)
Martin Kaymer (72nd)
Luke Donald (103rd)
Rory McIlroy (6th)
Tiger Woods (1130th)
Adam Scott (20th)
Jordan Spieth (2nd)
Jason Day (9th)
Dustin Johnson (1st)

Conclusion

Of the above list, only Woods and Westwood are in their 40s (and Vijay Singh flourished at a similar age) so, as a group, it’s fair to say that becoming world number one hasn’t exactly created a healthy afterglow in those that held the position in still fairly recent times.

But the most clear-cut example of world number one status not opening the door to guaranteed future success is in the majors.

Despite the obvious arguments, differences and caveats, I’m going to make a comparison with tennis.

Let’s go back to 2008 again when Tiger and his great buddy Roger Federer were the clear top dogs in their respective sports.

From then until the current day, a men’s Grand Slam has been won by an incumbent world number one on 14 occasions.

Do you want to know how many times a world number one golfer has won a major in that same timespan?

Once. Rory McIlroy at the 2014 USPGA.

The arguments why could go long into the night but whoever is number one going into all four of next year’s majors, history says you should stay well clear and put your money elsewhere!


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