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New World Order: No surprise over the new No. 1 here either

by | CBSSports.com Senior Golf Columnist

The second-youngest at No. 1, with his own cartoonish club cover, can Rory rule as long as Tiger? (Getty Images)  
The second-youngest at No. 1, with his own cartoonish club cover, can Rory rule as long as Tiger? (Getty Images)  

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. -- With the din still sounding all around him, the former world No. 1 took a moment on Sunday afternoon to size up the newest man to climb to the world-ranking summit.

Lee Westwood, both a friend and foil to Rory McIlroy over the past couple of years, was parked behind the grandstands on the 18th green at the Honda Classic and had clearly been reading the papers and website reports.

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In fact, in a bit of a surprise, he said the media hadn't given McIlroy enough credit for his recent stellar play. McIlroy had finished T5 or better in nine of his previous 10 official events offering ranking points before winning at Honda to take over the top spot.

"I've seen the stats and you're not counting one of the tournaments he's won in China," Westwood said of McIlroy's unofficial win against a short, but strong field in the Shanghai Masters last fall.

"I played with him the first two rounds that week and he played great. He's a very good player, very young, still learning, got most of the shots."

Westwood paused, mostly for timing purposes and comedic effect, and then failed to say with a completely straight face: "I think he's got a fairly bright future."

He's got a pretty terrific present too.

At age 22, the Ulsterman became the second-youngest player to reach No. 1 in the official world ranking, which is based on results over a two-year period. He did it in style, by not only winning, but by holding off Hail Mary-style rallies Sunday from Westwood, who shot 63, and Tiger Woods, who shot 62.

When asked if the aforementioned made it all the more sweet, McIlroy laughed.

"Yes, yes, yes," he said.

Pretty much summarizes how we feel here at the New World Order headquarters, where on the first week of each month, we take the official world rankings, the Sagarin computer rankings, and mix them with our own short-term, knee-jerk analytics to produce a top-10 list more reflective of who's hottest right here, right now. For pure delirium, we'll take this list over anything the OWGR or Sagarin database can spit out, because with Rory, Westy, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson all showing signs of playing at the apex of their games, it is shaping up as a memorable 2012 already.

Can we skip the undercard and play the Masters this week? Surely you recall who was the 54-hole leader at Augusta National last year -- none other than the new No. 1 himself.

The rankings have been unusually volatile over the past two years, with McIlroy becoming the fourth player to reach No. 1 since Woods vacated the throne in 2010, but he's seemingly best positioned to stay there for a while. Like, say, another decade or so.

This New World Order list is becoming an increasingly tough neighborhood in which to purchase property. Webb Simpson, after a scintillating second half in 2011, has two top 10s this year but hasn't quite kept up with these other guys and has fallen off the list. Hunter Mahan, an emerging star, won the World Golf Championships event in Tucson two weeks ago, and finished just outside the top 10.

It's been musical chairs lately, though McIlroy is now, officially, the maestro.

1. Rory McIlroy
Northern Ireland
Sagarin: 3
February New World Order: 2

All hail the new boy king. Here's what we wrote last month when we had McIlroy ranked second behind Luke Donald: "It still seems preordained that McIlroy will supplant Donald atop this list at some point, and it was reinforced last week in Abu Dhabi, when the Ulsterman seemingly played at about 80 percent effectiveness, whacked it all over the yard, and finished second to Robert Rock." However obvious that observation seems at the moment, it's nice to be right.

2. Lee Westwood
Sagarin: 2
February New World Order: 4
His closing 63 at the Honda passed almost without notice, except by us. Westwood played alongside Tiger Woods for the first three days and was striping it all week, waiting for a few putts to fall. Hole after hole, he had putts in the 10- to 15-foot range. As soon as he got away from Tiger's putter cooties on Sunday, he lit it up. Then again, so did Tiger. While most folks will be looking at Rory, Tiger and Lefty at Augusta, if I was plunking down dinero today, I'd be sure to give some love to the veteran Englishman too. Heaven knows he's good enough to win a major and has been close at the Masters before. Painfully close.

3. Luke Donald
Sagarin: 4
February New World Order: 1
When the numbers at the top of the world rankings are this tight, with so little separation, it doesn't take much for guys to start rappelling down the mountain in a hurry. Donald took his time as he eased his way into the season, took the Honda Classic off, even though he has a home in South Florida, and lost his No. 1 ranking to McIlroy as a result. It's been a slow start, to be sure. He's only played five rounds in two months of 2012 and hasn't finished better than T33 after a first-round blowout at the WGC match play event. Standing still these days can get you run over.

4. Steve Stricker
Sagarin: 1
February New World Order: 2
Anybody seen this guy lately? He turned 45 last month and surely seems to be pacing himself, having made three starts over the season's first two months. He's played 10 rounds. Maybe he's taking it easy to keep his neck issue from flaring up, which is probably wise. Stricker is one of the few players ranked in everybody's top 10 who has won this year, in the U.S. opener in Hawaii, and he forever remains less heralded than the majority of the players on this list. Perhaps because it's so hard to track the status of his play because of the big gaps in his schedule. His biggest impact over the past six weeks? Tutoring Tiger Woods on his putting stroke in Tucson.

5. Phil Mickelson
OWGR: 12
Sagarin: 10 February New World Order: Not ranked
Look who's back from comparative oblivion. Mickelson had been in a frustrating slide for the second half of 2011, causing his camp to look for answers. He is using a sports psychologist. Was it his arthritis medication? Or maybe he was just deep into the back nine of his career at age 41? Lefty showed that when properly motivated, he's got all the chops anybody could hope to answer, winning in stunning fashion at Pebble Beach while playing alongside rival Tiger Woods, then losing the following week in a playoff. Find us somebody else who shot the lowest score of the week in his last two starts. We'll wait.

6. Tiger Woods
OWGR: 16
Sagarin: 10
February New World Order: 10
What, too soon? Well, maybe. But you can bet most of his PGA Tour brethren aren't arguing that Woods belongs high up this list. Though is putting stroke continues to be cringe-inducing at times, he was in contention on the weekend at Pebble Beach and Palm Beach Gardens, and after posting a career-best score in the final round of the Honda Classic, a 62 that sent seismic shock waves that could be felt from Augusta to the U.K., it looks like he might finally have assembled the missing parts. The first three rounds at the Honda were merely OK. Maybe the 62 was a one-off. After all, a rookie shot 61 last week, too. As usual, the world will be watching, and waiting, to see where he goes from here.

7. Charl Schwartzel
South Africa
Sagarin: 7
February New World Order: 8
One of our personal favorites, the unassuming South African was on the leaderboard for much of the week at the Honda, though it never seemed like he was a threat to win. As he heads to Doral this week, where he nearly won a duel with eventual winner Ernie Els two years ago, he remains a step under the radar compared to some of the flashier players whose mugshots adorn this list. But there's not a better swing on this list in our opinion. When the pressure's on, the guy with the fewest moving parts has the best chance to execute. Like he did with those four closing birdies to win the Masters.

8. Martin Kaymer
Sagarin: 19
February New World Order: 5
What to make of the Germanator, eh? He's the only player in the top 25 of the official world ranking who is not a member of the U.S. tour, not that there's anything wrong with that, per se. The classy dude from Dusseldorf just isn't seen very often in the States as a result, and it thus becomes harder to do any comparative analysis. The former world No. 1 has been solid, though hardly emergent, in the 12 rounds he has played in 2012, with a pair of T9s and a T13. He'll be teeing it up in Florida for the next couple of weeks, so we better watch while you can.

9. Keegan Bradley
OWGR: 20
Sagarin: 63
February New World Order: Not ranked
When looking at his two ranking numbers for the OWGR and Sagarin, something doesn't quite seem to compute. Bradley won twice last year as a rookie and lost in a playoff last month against a stacked field at Riviera, which means he's posted the lowest number of the week three times in 14 months on the PGA Tour, not to mention won a major. It's the week-to-week consistency that needs work, and it seems to be rounding into form for the 25-year-old. After losing a playoff to Bill Haas at Riviera, he had a chance on Sunday at the Honda, though he faded in the wind to finish T12. Still, he's far more steady than he was in 2011 -- in his seven starts over two months, Bradley has finished outside the top 20 only once (a T22). Longer term, Bradley seems to have that intangible appetite to succeed when thrust into the Sunday meat grinder, as evidenced by his clutch putt on the 72nd hole to get into the playoff at Riviera. Not everybody reacts nearly as well in that situation.

10. Bill Haas
OWGR: 13
Sagarin: 35
February New World Order: 6
He's got three wins and three seconds over the past two seasons and is the reigning FedEx Cup champion. While his inconsistency is still maddening and hard to fathom -- he got whacked in the first round of the WGC match play event, three days after beating Mickelson and Bradley in a playoff at Riviera -- Haas seems to be getting more comfortable when playing against the big boys on Sunday. His Sagarin rating is low because of his performance in head-to-head comparisons against top-tier players. Over the past year, he is 323-403 against those in the official world top 50, which means he needs to step it up when in bigger events, like this week's World Golf Championship tournament at Doral.


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