The best golfer in the world is not actually the best golfer in the world. Only in this sport could one make this argument and plenty of others agree.
There are a lot of reasons for this, of course, most notably that the primary source that tracks such things (the Official World Golf Rankings) is a lagging system that goes two years deep into the archives to pull results with which to produce a No. 1 golfer in the world. Currently, it's Dustin Johnson, who has as many top 10s on the PGA Tour over the last three months as you and I do.
Often when this happens -- a great golfer builds a huge lead in the OWGR points race and then tumbles off the table like D.J -- a proper No. 1-in-waiting emerges. In this case, though, nobody has stepped up to fill that void. Some of this is the unintended consequence of somebody (Phil Mickelson) ranked outside the top 100 in the OWGR winning the most recent major championship. It's a reminder of how stupidly deep golf is and also dips the, "Wait, who's the guy right now" conversation into complete chaos.
No matter what metric you use to determine the best golfer in the world, there's a logical argument on the other side. Remember, this is an exercise in micro-trends, not a bigger-picture look at golf. It's much easier to determine the best golfer in the world over the course of 24 months or five years or a decade. Much less so when you look at the last month or two or four, but with two majors, the Olympics, the FedEx Cup Playoffs and a Ryder Cup on deck, the last month or two or four is instructive for what's about to take place.
Nobody would say D.J. is the guy right now, so let's look at a few other candidates. World No. 2 Justin Thomas won the Players Championship; maybe it's him? Oh, but he missed the cut at the PGA Championship and finished T40 at the Charles Schwab Challenge. No. 3 Jon Rahm? No tournament wins in 2021 (although we'll come back to him). No. 4 Bryson DeChambeau is a solid choice considering nobody has more PGA Tour wins (two) than him this season ... but he has not cracked the top 25 in four of his last five events (including two majors).
Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama does not have another top 10 this year. Brooks Koepka is a decent choice, but we currently do not know how many events he'll play the rest of the year nor how many legs he'll stand on when he does. Rory McIlroy (No. 8) won two starts ago, but that was sandwiched with a missed cut and a T49 at two major championships. Xander Schauffele (No. 5) missed cuts at the PGA Championship and The Players. Technically, Jordan Spieth (No. 23) has the best advanced statistics of 2021 by a pretty wide margin, but watching him kick away a win at the Charles Schwab Challenge on Sunday did not engender a lot of, "Yeah, best guy alive" conversation, though as always I contend that we overrate the outcomes of singular rounds.
If you look at average finish at the first two majors and the Players Championship, there's actually an interesting story in there. First, only 20 golfers have made the cut at all three, and only one (Rahm) has an average finish in the single digits, though Abraham Ancer, Corey Conners, Paul Casey, Patrick Reed, Shane Lowry, Phil Mickelson and Will Zalatoris are all fairly close. Viktor Hovland, Conners and Zalatoris all have an outside-the-box case to be made here as the best golfer, but none have the earned depth of character to force you to apply the label.
If you made me pick somebody, I'd probably go with Rahm, who has seven top 10s in 11 appearances worldwide in 2021. I could also be convinced to choose Spieth, who is No. 1 in the Sagarin rankings over the last four months and has the best strokes-gained number in the world when looking at every period from six months inward. I would also consider Collin Morikawa, who is gaining over 2.0 strokes per round from tee to green this year (the only golfer who's doing that) and could have won about four events with a putter approaching average.
But I don't feel fantastic about any of these choices, which is sort of the point.
|Golfer||OWGR||Wins||Top 10s||Strokes Gained (Jan. 1)|
So what exactly does it mean that there is not one dominant golfer in the world right now, nobody that you can look to and say, "I don't know if he'll win, but I know he's contending this week"?
Well, it means there's a bit of a mess when it comes to the odds of the next two majors. William Hill Sportsbook does not know what to do with the favorites. Rahm, who again has not won a golf tournament this year, is now the U.S. Open favorite. There are eight guys -- Rahm, D.J., McIlroy, Thomas, Spieth, DeChambeau, Koepka and Schauffele -- bunched together at the top between 11-1 and 16-1. The same is mostly true of The Open at Royal St. George's.
It's fitting that two different Opens will be played this summer because that's the word I would use to describe the landscape right now: open.
With just a few months remaining on the most grandiose season in professional golf history, nobody has emerged the way we thought they might and made a career for himself. Nobody has bagged four events or two majors or stepped out in front of the rest of the deepest and most competitive collective group of golfers this sport has ever seen in its 100-year (or so) history at the professional level.
Parity is good, and this exercise is a reminder of just how difficult it is to dominate, to be the guy. It makes those four-month or six-month runs guys go on where they leave no doubt about the "best golfer alive" debate even more impressive than we imagine them to be. It also cracks the door like it did at the PGA for somebody to come from the depths of who's playing well and snag a major championship.
So the question as Memorial Day hits and a monster golf summer begins is the same as it was when the PGA Tour kicked its super season off back in September: Will anyone step up and own this year, or will it be what the "who's the real No. 1?" debate is right now and go down as one of the most shared and least dominated seasons of all time?