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Who’s No. 1 in golf? Why top spot in OWGR is changing at record pace early in 2022-23 PGA Tour season

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Only two golfers occupied the No. 1 spot in the Official World Golf Rankings from July 1999 to October 2010. Through the first 60 days of 2023, three golfers have already taken a turn sitting on the mountaintop. 

Rory McIlroy started the year at No. 1, but he was usurped by Scottie Scheffler after he won the Phoenix Open. Then, Scheffler was overtaken the following week by Jon Rahm following the Spaniard’s win at the Genesis Invitational.

It’s not unusual for the No. 1 spot in the world to change hands a lot throughout the year. What is unusual, however, is how quickly it has happened. Since the system was implemented in the 1980s, the No. 1 spot has never changed hands more than once before March 1.

This trend speaks to several of things. 

The first is that oftentimes one player has dominated and remained at No. 1 for a long period of time. Tiger Woods had two separate stints of at least 250 weeks. The second is that it’s unusual for more than two golfers to be playing at a No. 1 player in the world level for long stretches. The third is that it’s abnormal for players to do so in non-major championship settings this early in the year.

No matter how you dice it, Rahm, Scheffler and McIlroy are the three best players in the world. The OWGR has them in that order, and Data Golf — whose formula is very different than the OWGR — agrees, slotting them a bit differently with Rahm in first, McIlroy in second and Scheffler in third.

We could be headed for a year like 2012 in which there were seven exchanges of the No. 1 spot between Luke Donald and McIlroy. Or, perhaps 2015 when there were eight between Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and McIlroy. We may even get a 2018 when there were nine different exchanges of world No. 1 between Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Justin Rose. 

With the PGA Tour’s implementation of designated events in which almost all of the top players in the world play, it’s not crazy to think that the exchange rate of the No. 1 spot in the world in 2023 is going to blow every other year out of the water.

In other words, stronger fields could create more volatility at the top of the OWGR. Patrick Cantlay (No. 4), Cameron Smith (No. 5) or Xander Schauffele (No. 6) are all within striking distance and could move toward that top spot with wins at any of the massive upcoming events like the Players, Masters or PGA Championship.

Rahm, who on Sunday became world No. 1 for the fifth different time in his career, is in no mood to cede the top spot.

“If I were not to … get to No. 1 at this point, I don’t really care,” said Rahm after winning Riviera. “I’ve won five out of my last nine starts, I haven’t finished worse than top seven and I’ve won three tournaments already. I don’t need a ranking to validate anything, right?

“Having the best season of my life and hopefully I can keep it going. I said it before: For the ranking to be accurate, we’re going to have to wait about a year and a half for all those points to kind of, I don’t know if recycle is the right word, but for the people that earned points before they changed the system for everything to even out. I’m also right on what I said earlier on the year. I mean, if I get to No. 1, I’m the third player to be No. 1 in the world in, what, just over a month and a half. You know, it’s the beauty of the year that we’re living right now, it’s exciting for us to play and exciting for the golf fans because things like this can happen.”

He’s right about the last part. Additionally, two of those players recently hit the ceiling of their careers, at least statistically. Data Golf keeps a record of the best 50-round strokes gained averages for at least the last 28 years, and both Rahm and McIlroy recently hit the best run they’ve ever been on in their careers, which is pretty remarkable given how good their careers have been.


Data Golf

Perhaps Rahm takes the ball and runs away with it the rest of the year and nobody else sniffs No. 1 until 2024 or beyond. But given how many packed tournaments are forthcoming, I’m dubious of that. No, I think the world rankings are going to see more change and movement than they’ve seen in a long time, especially at the top. That may be hard to keep up with or confusing for some, but like Rahm said, the quality of play and the number of golfers who are part of it is truly a great thing for fans of golf.

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