Only three men occupied the top spot in the Official World Golf Rankings in 2022. Switching between a few stars, Rory McIlroy is the player currently holding the position as he regained the title for the ninth time in his career with a victory at The CJ Cup in South Carolina in October. Having relinquished it before, and with the OWGR taking on a relatively new shape, will the Northern Irishman be able to hold on to the pole position for the entirety of 2023, or will someone else usurp him?
This prior year began with Jon Rahm atop the golf world. Beginning his 2022 in impressive fashion, Rahm finished runner-up at the Tournament of Champions and added another podium finish a few weeks later at the Farmers Insurance Open. Tacking on a top-10 result at the WM Phoenix Open, it was that very event which kickstarted Scottie Scheffler's march to the top.
Beating Patrick Cantlay in a playoff in Phoenix, Scheffler went on to experience a historic run in the spring that included a victory two weeks later at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Making his way through the WGC Match Play, the Texan officially claimed the world No. 1 with his victory in his collegiate backyard of Austin, Texas.
Adding some breathing room between him and the rest of professional golf, Scheffler notched his first career major championship at The Masters. Four wins in a six-week stretch cemented him as the best player in the world. His status would hold steady with runner-up finishes at the U.S. Open and the Charles Schwab Challenge but began to show cracks in the latter stages of the summer. Unable to convert his 54-hole lead at the Tour Championship into the FedEx Cup crown, Scheffler slowly saw an object grow larger in his rearview mirror. That object? Rory McIlroy.
His win at East Lake accompanied another at the Canadian Open as well as four top-10 finishes at the major championships. With his victory this past fall in South Carolina, McIlroy completed his trek to the top but nearly gave it up during the winter months. Had Scheffler won the Hero World Challenge, where he ultimately finished second, he would have momentarily regained what he had lost.
With such fluidity in the rankings, 2023 has the potential to see numerous players make meaningful runs towards world No. 1. Previous holders like Scheffler and Rahm pose significant threats to McIlroy, as do Cantlay and Xander Schauffele. Will those closest to McIlroy chase him down or will an outsider similar to Scheffler in 2022 make his mark?
Best potential paths to world No. 1
1. Patrick Cantlay (Current rank: 4)
He reached as high as world No. 3 multiple times throughout 2022 but was never able to crack inside the top two. Cantlay is consistently among the best players in the world, and it may be a change to the PGA Tour schedule which ultimately propels him to new heights. Looking at the OWGR website, there is only one player inside the top 50 (non-LIV division) who has less than 40 official events contributing to their ranking, and that player is Cantlay.
With all the top players likely to play in 13 elevated events, four major championships and a handful of other tournaments, Cantlay's typical schedule of roughly 20 tournaments a season may become the new norm. If so, it will only aid him as his game remains as sturdy as ever. Posting +2.08 strokes gained per round the last two years, some variance went against him in 2022 as he lost in playoffs at the WM Phoenix Open and RBC Heritage and collected runner-up finishes at the Rocket Mortgage Classic and Shriners Children's Open. Cantlay is good enough to post a four-win season, and it wouldn't surprise me if does just that in 2023.
2. Jon Rahm (5)
Beginning this past year as world No. 1, Rahm did all the right things early on, and it looked as if a repeat of his 2021 was on the horizon. Plans were halted when he relinquished his No. 1 ranking at the WGC Match Play, and things went from bad to worse when he dropped out of the top five in the world for the first time in three years.
Rahm bounced back with three wins in his last 14 worldwide starts of 2022, and while he is technically trending in the wrong direction from a strokes-gained perspective (+2.41 SG per round in 2019, +2.40 in 2020, +2.37 in 2021 and +2.20 in 2022), this year presents a prime bounce back spot. The Spaniard is still the best driver of the golf ball in the world, and over his last five measured tournaments he averaged +1.45 strokes gained putting per round. Unsustainable? Yes. But also potentially a sign of things to come.
3. Scottie Scheffler (2)
Well, he's the closest to McIlroy to begin 2023 and nearly leapfrogged him had it not been for Viktor Hovland at the Hero World Challenge. Regardless, Scheffler's downturn in quality after his red-hot spring was primarily a result of his short game. With his putter letting him down more times than not, the 26-year-old was still able to contend on a regular basis, thus displaying just how strong the rest of his game remains.
In his 16 starts since slipping on the green jacket at Augusta National, Scheffler has finished on the podium six times including runner-up finishes at the Charles Schwab Challenge, U.S. Open, Tour Championship and Hero World Challenge. During this stretch, Scheffler averaged -0.35 strokes gained putting per round, and while golf is hardly simple, a return to form on the greens in early 2023 may mean a return to world No. 1.
4. Xander Schauffele (6)
The way in which Schauffele's peers gush about him and his game should hold weight and in 2022, he finally showcased what they have been preaching about for years. After squandering a 54-hole lead at the WM Phoenix Open for the second consecutive year, Schauffele hit a lull with the low point coming in the form of a rare missed cut at The Masters.
Since the hiccup at Augusta National, Schauffele has rattled off three wins, four top fives and five additional top-20 finishes in his last 13 tournaments. This is the consistency we should expect to see from the 29-year-old -- the consistency which allowed him to post greater than +2.10 strokes gained per round in 13 of his 22 starts in 2022. With consistency comes contention, and if the monkey is truly off his back, the opportunity to reach world No. 1 will come for Schauffele.
5. Justin Thomas (8)
Ask yourself this: Is there a player who, when on, can get it quite like JT? The answer is no. The 15-time winner on the PGA Tour hasn't racked up wins in bunches the last two seasons, but expect that to change in 2023. His last two victories are the 2021 Players Championship and the 2022 PGA Championship, and while impressive, even Thomas understands that given his caliber, two wins a season should be the bare minimum.
Thomas' three best strokes gained season were 2020 (+2.27 SG per round; 3 wins), 2018 (+2.27 SG per round; 3 wins) and 2017 (+2.22 SG per round; 5 wins). In 2022, Thomas eeked his way closer to the +2.20 range and posted +2.02 strokes gained per round thanks in part to a solid putting campaign. His typically strong iron play lagged ever so slightly, and should it return to historical levels, Thomas could reign atop the world for the third time in his career.
6. Tony Finau (12)
You know who the 12th-ranked player in the world was at the end of 2021? Scottie Scheffler. It is certainly within the realm of possibilities that Finau could match such a breakout, especially with the manner in which he culminated his 2022. Winning three times in his last seven starts, Finau's quality shined through after a rough start to his season that included zero top-10 finishes in his first 10 events.
He is the eldest name on this list at the age of 33, but age is just a number; let us not forget that Phil Mickelson didn't win his first major championship until the age of 34. His rolling strokes gained averages show the potential for him to roll to the world No. 1. Over the last 12 months, he ranks 10th in total strokes gained, fourth the last six months and fourth again over the last three months with only McIlroy, Cantlay and Rahm ahead of him.