Originally created 05/06/04

Tiger at No. 2? It's possible



CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Brace yourself, because it might be coming - and sooner than anybody thought.

In as soon as two weeks, the golf world is preparing for a shake-up of its equilibrium. The order of the universe as we now know it could be upended with one simple phrase:

No. 2 Tiger Woods.

Yes, Woods, the man who has been classified as the No. 1 player in the world for 247 consecutive weeks, is in danger of losing his crown to a 41-year-old Fijian. Vijay Singh is closer than anyone has been in Woods' rearview mirror since Tiger took over permanently after winning the 1999 PGA Championship.

"If there was a chance I was going to get to No. 1, it will probably be this year," said Singh, winner of two straight events and three this season. "It depends on how Tiger plays, also."

While players such as Charles Howell "doubt he's gonna get passed," Woods is handling the imminent threat to his theoretical throne in stride.

"It'll happen," he said Wednesday at Quail Hollow Country Club where he, Singh, Phil Mickelson and a stellar field will tee it up in the Wachovia Championship. "I won't be No. 1 in the world forever. Either someone flat out outplays me or I might not play at the same level or old age takes over. Whatever the circumstances are, it's going to happen. Every streak comes to an end. That's just a fact of life."

This potential adjustment in the vertical hold of the world ranking is not really about Woods' so-called "slump." To characterize his play as such is narrow-minded, akin to condemning Shakespeare for the relative weakness of Troilus and Cressida on the heels of Hamlet and Twelfth Night or Beethoven for his less grandiose Eighth Symphony in F Major.

That Woods is losing his grip on his No. 1-in-the-world status has more to do with the strength of his peers than the weakness of his game. If the ranking is a true snapshot of a limited window, you can easily argue that Woods should stand behind Singh and Mickelson at this moment.

"I feel like I'm playing well now and if people think I'm the best player in the world right now, that's fine," Singh said.

For supporting evidence, just look at the stats of Woods and Singh in their past 25 events, dating back as far as Tiger's first start last season at the Buick Invitational. They are vaguely distinguishable.

In those starts, Woods has missed zero cuts to Singh's one. Woods has six wins to Singh's five. Woods has one more top-five finish (14 to 13) while Singh has one more top 10 (18 to 17). As for money, Woods' $8.6 million is a scant $43,002 ahead of Singh - a $1,720 per-event difference that is roughly equivalent to the gap between finishing 30th and 31st in this week's Wachovia Championship.

With Singh coming off two consecutive wins and entering two events in which he finished second and first a year ago, could any pollster argue that he shouldn't be ranked higher than Woods?

"He's the guy to beat here," said defending Wachovia champion David Toms, despite Woods' 66 in Wednesday's pro-am.

As for No. 5 Mickelson, he lags behind only because his 2003 season was among the worst of his career. But the lefty overhauled his swing and his approach in the off-season and is right there with the best in 2004 - and he does have the only major of the threesome in the past two years. With nine top-10s, seven top-fives, two wins and one green jacket in 10 starts this year, Mickelson has gained more world ranking points than anyone this season and has more to gain the rest of the year.

But Singh is the immediate challenge to Woods' supremacy.

"He certainly should get all the respect in the world because he's worked his game to a level where he's consistent and is pretty much able to contend in every tournament he plays in," Woods said of Singh. "And that's a lot."

The arguably flawed Official World Golf Ranking is a complicated system to explain. The formula has changed frequently since its inception in 1986. A quick synopsis is that it measures performance against strength of field over a two-year span, the most recent results more heavily weighted.

Not long ago, Woods' clearance over second place was so huge it boggled the mind. Heading into the 2003 Masters Tournament, the point gap between Woods and the No. 2 player exceeded the gap between the No. 2 player and No. 126.

But Singh has systematically narrowed the gap with steady excellence in the two years since Woods won his last major at the 2002 U.S. Open. The current margin (2.14 points) is barely less than the gap between No. 2 and No. 4 (2.29).

"It's closer now than it's ever been," Singh said. "It's not only me, but Ernie (Els) is playing well and Phil is playing well. The whole gang is playing good golf."

Woods knows what he needs to do to hold on to his No. 1. If he doesn't win next month's U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, he won't have any major wins in his world ranking points bank.

"I haven't won the biggest events like I did for awhile," Woods said. "If you win majors, you get bumped up pretty well in the world ranking points. I have won World Golf Championships, but it's not the same as winning majors."

Would it bother Woods to be passed?

"It would bother me because I haven't won," he said. "There's no substitute for winning. If I would be passed, then I wouldn't have won as many times as I normally have and the tournaments I want to win."

Should Woods reverse that trend, it won't matter what Singh does.

"If I keep playing the way I am, not have any hiccups along the way, I have a good chance," Singh said. "It depends on what Tiger does, too. If he starts winning like he normally does, the task will be much harder."

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.