Congratulations, Rory McIlroy, on becoming the No. 1 golfer in the world. Enjoy the view for a few minutes – then get back to work.
As with anyone ranked No. 1 in anything, young Rory now has a big, fat target painted on his back. (Just ask Apple or, tsk tsk, Rush Limbaugh.) The old adage holds that getting to the top is the easy part, it’s staying there that’s truly difficult.
Who can knock the uber-talented 22-year-old off his lofty perch? Here’s a look at the leading candidates.
- Current rank: 2
- Pros: Obviously, he’s got the shortest distance to go to overtake McIlroy – a mere .33 rankings points, to be exact. (McIlroy leads Donald, 9.29 to 8.97.) Donald earned his place with steady play, and as long as he’s the best chipper and putter in the game, he figures to pile up top-10 finishes.
- Cons: As good as his iron play and short game are, Donald is a puny driver by today’s standards. He’s not deadly accurate, either. That puts him at a distinct disadvantage against most of the other guns vying for major titles – and places that much more pressure on his putter.
- Prediction: Donald’s days as No. 1 were always, well, numbered. He’ll remain one of the world’s finest, maybe even break through for that elusive major, but never again reach the top rung.
- Current rank: 16
- Pros: Once upon a time, Woods held the No. 1 spot for 623 weeks. His recent play, especially a final-round 62 at the Honda, indicates a swing that’s in order. And does anyone doubt Tiger’s desire?
- Cons: Let’s see… There’s the recent spate of poor putting, sporadic driving accuracy, his diminished aura of invincibility, an influx of talented young players… Did I mention his past health issues? Or his age (36)?
- Prediction: This is a tough one. On one hand, Woods is back to consistently contending, even while he adapts to a new swing and suffers uncharacteristic putting lapses. On the other, there’s no guarantee Tiger will regain his ability to pour in clutch putts at will. The guess is Tiger will soon climb back into the top 5, but fail to supplant McIlroy from the throne.
- Current rank: 12
- Pros: His sensational 64 to win at Pebble Beach and his near-win the next week at Riviera prove Mickelson’s still a force at 41. At his best, Mickelson is every bit as explosive as when he won three of his four career majors from 2004-06.
- Cons: Do you really have to ask? The golf version of Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, Mickelson can go from hero to goat quicker than you can say, “Just lay up, Phil.” Besides, he’s a ways back in the rankings and doesn’t figure to play that often, what with his family and business obligations.
- Prediction: Phil’s got at least one more major in him, but his best shot at the top spot came (and went) in 2010.
- Current rank: 7
- Pros: The youngster whose gifts most closely match McIlroy’s, the 24-year-old Aussie gets far less media attention than he deserves. In 2011 he finished second at both the Masters and U.S. Open (albeit eight back of McIlroy) and has a great swing that’s built to last.
- Cons: While McIlroy has figured out how to win, Day is still searching for the secret; his lone PGA Tour victory came in 2010. Loose driving is his one obvious flaw.
- Prediction: Physically, little if anything separates McIlroy from Day. Barring the unforeseen, he seems a cinch for a Hall of Fame-level career – assuming he learns to close the deal. Day will threaten for the No. 1 mantle, but it will take a couple more years.
- Current rank: 8
- Pros: Prodigious length, impervious nature, streaky putting touch, experience from near-misses in majors… What else do you want in a budding superstar?
- Cons: Hmmm, how about a reliable short game and a penchant for delivering in big moments? Thus far, Johnson has proved lacking in both categories. Then again, he’s still a pup at 27 – it only seems like he’s been around forever.
- Prediction: Johnson has displayed staying power in his four-plus seasons, and shows no signs of slumping anytime soon. With greenside improvement, he’ll take up permanent residence among the world’s top 3, while a hot streak just might propel him to No. 1.
- Current rank: 20
- Pros: A year ago, Bradley was a nobody. Then he won the Byron Nelson and PGA Championship and became the Next Big Thing. Judging by his excellent start to 2012, the New Englander is no fluke. He’s got the length and the cojones to win multiple majors.
- Cons: Hard to see many at the moment. Bradley is sound in every aspect and has a tough yet joyful demeanor that’s perfect in pressure-packed situations. The only question is whether he’s got the raw ability to challenge thoroughbreds like McIlroy, Day and Johnson.
- Prediction: Perennial top-10 status seems a safe bet. Ascending to No. 1 is a bit of a longshot – but that’s just how Bradley likes it.