Europe maintains world domination

Robin Barwick on the fight in the top-10 of the Official World Golf Ranking

Darren Clarke at The Open

As the world's finest players prepare for the WGC Bridgestone Invitational and the PGA Championship, the highest reaches of the World Ranking remain dominated by Europeans.

Until recently, the Official World Golf Ranking made for very predictable reading. Tiger Woods' name was always at the top, with fellow American Phil Mickelson usually a distant second.

That was before the life of golf's 14-time Major champion was turned upside down by the lurid revelations concerning his serial infidelity. Woods' marriage ended, his sponsors departed, and inevitably - even for this most steely of competitors - his form packed up and left him too.

Having spent 728 consecutive weeks inside the world's top-10 since winning his first Major title at the 1997 Masters, and spending 623 of those weeks at number one to set a record that may never be broken, Woods slid outside the top-10 in May this year, and his ranking has continued to head in a southerly direction since.

Another record of Tiger's that may never be matched is his run of 281 consecutive weeks as number one, but a world top-10 without Woods certainly has greater novelty value every Monday.

England's Lee Westwood was the first to grasp the number-one ranking from Woods, in November 2010, and he remained there for 17 weeks, until Germany's Martin Kaymer took over in February and enjoyed an eight-week sojourn at number one. Westwood returned to the summit when he won the Asian Tour's Indonesian Masters in April, but then at the end of May, the outwardly unshakeable Luke Donald usurped his countryman by winning a duel between the two in a sudden-death play-off at the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth.

Donald has remained number one since then, with his position boosted by another victory in the Barclays Scottish Open in July, and this trio make up the world's top-three: Donald, followed by Westwood and then Kaymer, with American Steve Stricker at number four and US Open champion Rory McIlroy biding his time at number five.

"The World Ranking is all about consistency and playing well week-in and week-out," explains Westwood, 38. "The secret to being world number one is having the consistency, and all parts of your game have to be good to do that. The toughest part of it is the media commitments - people want a lot more of your time."

Having been so dominant in world golf over recent generations, the decline of the American contingent in the World Rankings may be set to continue. Stricker, aged 44, is an accomplished competitor with 11 PGA Tour victories including two this season, and while he has produced his best from since turning 40, he is older than all three golfers ranked higher than him in the world. The clock is ticking on his challenge to be world number one.

Ranked sixth in the new world order is Mickelson, aged 41, with 42 career wins. Mickelson's peak years coincided with Woods' best years, which is why the four-time Major champion has never been ranked number one in the world. Mickelson can win on any week against any field, but as a golfer who has always put family first, and who has achieved so much, whether he has the drive to fight for every last putt, week in, week out, is doubtful.

The next American-in-waiting is perhaps the most compelling candidate as a potential world number one: Dustin Johnson. The 27-year-old from South Carolina contended at the 2010 US Open until a dramatic final-round collapse at Pebble Beach, and then he looked odds-on to claim last year's US PGA Championship until he grounded his club on one of Whistling Straits' never-ending bunkers, which cost him a place in the play-off with eventual winner Kaymer and Bubba Watson.

Having recovered from such brutal Major scrapes, when Johnson teed up alongside Darren Clarke for the final round of the 2011 Open at Royal St George's, he had the perfect opportunity to establish himself as America's undisputed talisman, fit to lead the re-emergence of American golf.

In the event, Johnson never got close and the leading American challenge came from Mickelson - who until this year has never impressed in the Open. However, once Clarke had eagled the par-five 7th to open up a two-shot lead, he steadily steered his ball around the final holes to win by three. Johnson and Mickelson finished in a tie for second place, which represented career-best finishes in the Open for both players, and for Johnson at least, his performance saw him jump into the thick of the world's top-10, rising from 12th to 7th.  

As for Clarke's World Ranking, his name was catapulted 83 places, from the relative Tour wilderness of 113th, safely back into the top-50 at 30th, from where he qualifies for all of the world's most important tournaments once again.

For the time being though, Donald remains the man to catch. "Being number one brings a little more expectation and a little bit more media," admits Donald. "But I'm excited for the challenge. I've been able to hold on to it for a number of weeks now. I'm trying to draw on all the good things that got me to number one and bring that to each week on Tour."

Article courtesy of Mercedes-Benz, patron of the Open Championship

Freelance Writer

Robin has worked for Golf Monthly for over a decade.