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New World Order: Players having yo-yo years (and not only Tiger)

by | Senior Golf Columnist

After starting the season on the sloppy side, Donald is now piling up impressive finishes. (Getty Images)  
After starting the season on the sloppy side, Donald is now piling up impressive finishes. (Getty Images)  

ORLANDO, Fla. -- He's up, he's down.

He rises, he falls. He sinks, he swims. He's toast, we're toasting him. He's whack, he's back.

For once, we're not talking about Tiger Woods. Well, at least not ... specifically.

For those who correctly assert that Woods has been on a professional yo-yo ride this year, consider two other guys making their first-ever appearance in our New World Order top 10 this week, Jason Dufner and Rickie Fowler.

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Both seemed poised for massive wins over the past two weeks, but dropped the ball in the final round on Sunday, often in spectacular fashion, be it via drowned wedge shots or a sea of three-jacked greens.

And don't even bring up Rory McIlroy, who must have hit his head on the rankings ceiling four weeks ago and gotten downright woozy. McIlroy, one week away from defending the greatest title of his career, can barely remember which end of the club to hold at the moment.

Usually, when we trot out our performance-based, yet admittedly subjective rankings on the first Tuesday of each month, there are more candidates than spots available. This month, with the careening fortunes of the aforementioned four, it's harder to handicap than ever.

The official world ranking weighs performances based on a two-year window, while the Sagarins use a 12-month sheet based largely on head-to-head play against other top-ranked stars. New World Order uses those metrics, but with a greater emphasis on recent performance in meaningful circumstances in what we prefer to call a dominance index.

In other words, these are the guys who have played well over the long and short term, while most consistently planting a spiked foot in the backside of their foes. It's just that, of late, the game's just as often been kicking some of 'em right back.

1. Luke Donald
Sagarin: 2
May New World Order: 3
After an admittedly sloppy start to the season, Luke has somewhat quietly slid back into the top spot in the world ranking and started doing what he’s done better than any other player over the past couple of years -- pile up impressive finishes. After defending his title at the European Tour's top event outside London two weeks ago, Donald was never in the mix at the Memorial, yet by Sunday night, he was right on the cusp of another top 10 before finishing 12th. If Donald can keep his occasionally uncooperative driver in play, he’s not a bad pick for the U.S. Open next week.

2. Lee Westwood
Sagarin: 1
May New World Order: 4
After finishing a solid T5 at the Charlotte event last month, the rest of May was forgettable for Westwood, who didn't crack the top 30 in two elite events at Sawgrass and Wentworth. But if you can find another player with five top-four finishes in 2012, serve him up. We'll wait. Just as a conversation starter, Westy finished T7 at Olympic Club the last time the U.S. Open was played there in 1998.

3. Jason Dufner
Sagarin: 35
May New World Order: Not ranked
With apologies to Tiger Woods and Hunter Mahan, the only other players with a pair of PGA Tour wins in 2012, Dufner has emerged as the top guy on the circuit so far this year. In fact, before he burned out in the final round at Colonial, Dufner was looking at three wins in a month. Mind you, this late bloomer held the lead at the PGA Championship and Masters, which demonstrates an ability to adapt to different conditions and courses. Five top-12 and two wins in the first five months is career-defining stuff for Dufner. So far, anyway. He might have more left in the tank.

4. Bubba Watson
Sagarin: 20
May New World Order: 2
This is mostly a major emeritus distinction, because quite simply, Watson has barely been seen since he won the Masters two months ago. He missed the cut last week in Ohio, though assured scribes afterward that he wasn't all that rusty. There aren't many players with four wins on their OWRG points sheet over the past 24 months, but at this point, he scares me as far as his chances at the U.S. Open next week. It's a tight venue and hardly the bomber’s paradise that better suits him most weeks.

5. Rory McIlroy
Northern Ireland
Sagarin: 3
May New World Order: 1
This is not a slap at a certain guy named Sabbatini, per se, but it's getting pretty bad when you write the words Rory and fans ask "which one?" It was Sabbatini, not McIlroy, who was atop the leaderboard for much of the final round last weekend after the Irishman missed his incomprehensible third cut in succession, all at elite-class events in the States and Europe. Making it even more of a head-scratcher is the fact that McIlroy had earlier piled up a months-long string of stellar top-5 finishes stretching to last year. He's playing this week in Memphis, partly because he's missed so many cuts of late, he needs the at-bats. Troubling thought: It's looking like a rough week in San Francisco, because even as the defending champ, it's never good to be searching for your swing at a punitive U.S. Open venue.

6. Matt Kuchar
Sagarin: 9
May New World Order: Not ranked
Interesting, next week's U.S. Open is as the site where the American public truly latched on to Kuchar, who played there as an amateur and dazzled viewers with his smile and golf swing. In fact, he finished T14. Fourteen years later, he's finally reached the high level many envisioned after winning the Players Championship last month. In April, Kuchar held the lead at the Masters with three holes left, so he's clearly got what it takes to play ball in majors, and he was among the weekend leaders at the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits two years ago. He'll almost certainly need one of his best ball-striking weeks to contend at Olympic, however.

7. Tiger Woods
Sagarin: 6
May New World Order: 9
Don't ask -- because I don't have any better idea than you do. Woods is so unpredictable these days, nobody knows whether he'll win, miss the cut or limp off with an injured leg, which has all happened in the past two months. After winning at Bay Hill in March, he didn't finish inside the top 40 in his next three starts and had clearly lost the plot with his swing, which remains very much in transition. But in his win last weekend at Memorial, it's been years since Woods looked more solid through the green, leading the event in greens in regulation and missing one fairway on Sunday -- by a foot. If he hits the ball 80 percent as well next week at the U.S. Open, he's going to contend, even if his putter remains stuck in neutral.

8. Hunter Mahan
Sagarin: 18
May New World Order: 5
Here's another guy who has been downright mercurial since winning for the second time this year, at Houston, the week before the Masters. He was a respectable 12th at Augusta, but has gone T53, MC, T37 and T19 since, which is hardly the stuff to make rivals faint at the sight of his shadow. Mahan, one of the more affable and intelligent players on tour, turned 30 last month and is coming into his prime. His closest call at a major came at the 2009 U.S. Open at Bethpage, when he was T6 and had a chance to win before a late-round approach shot caromed off a flagstick and resulted in a bogey. So in other words, the California native has got he chops to contend in the National Open.

9. Justin Rose
Sagarin: 15
May New World Order: 8
While nearly every other player on this list has been careening all over in 2012, Rosie has been a rock and hasn't missed the cut all year. In fact, his best play has come over the past two months after finishing T8 at the Masters. After winning at Doral in a mega-deep WGC event, Rose was second at Wentworth two weeks ago and followed up with an 8th-place run at the Memorial, where he was a former champion. Honestly, at this point, he might have the best chance of the three Englishmen on this list to break the nation’s 16-year drought at the majors. Then again, he’s missed his last three U.S. Open cuts.

10. Rickie Fowler
Sagarin: 17
May New World Order: Not ranked
A bunch of scribes were sitting around on Saturday night last weekend, handicapping the leaderboard headed into the final round at Memorial, and the easy consensus was that Fowler was the man to beat. After all, he’s won at Quail Hollow, a venue similar to Muirfield Village, then finished second a week later at Sawgrass. He had four straight top-10 finishes heading into the final round at Memorial, where he played in the penultimate group alongside Woods. What followed was downright disappointing as Fowler chopped up the fourth round in 84 shots and fell apart, falling 49 spots and finishing T52. We’re guessing that anybody who wears an orange belt has the moxie to bounce back, especially at an Open staged in his home state.


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