Who is the best golfer in the world? That was a rather difficult question to answer on Sunday morning, but after Vijay Singh won the 86th PGA Championship in a playoff with Justin Leonard and Chris DeMarco at Whistling Straits Sunday evening I think the 41-year-old Fijian has a strong claim to the title. Oh sure, technically Tiger Woods–who finished in a tie for 24th–will retain the top spot for a record 332 weeks, but, with a win at the last major of the year, Vijay now has a total of five wins, a solid lead on the money list, and a practical stranglehold on Player of the Year. Add this all up and he is the best player in the world. A review of how the challengers fared will make this clear.
While Tiger held onto his number-one status he almost lost another streak–his record of 129 cuts made. After a rather ugly 75 on Thursday, Tiger found himself at three over with six holes to play on Friday. The cut was projected at one over, so things looked bleak. For a moment Tiger regained his status as the most exciting player in the game, wowing the crowd with three birdies in his last six holes to make the cut with a shot to spare. And for a while it seemed as if the old Tiger was back. Standing on the eleventh tee on Saturday he was four under par and looking for a few birdies coming home to get right back in the tournament. Instead he boggied the twelfth hole and finished with six straight pars. Another major was going to slip by without a win for the player who once made it seem as though he owned them. On Sunday his heart clearly wasn’t in it and he missed a number of short putts to finish with a 73 and a tie for 24th. Tiger may hold the ranking but he certainly isn’t playing like number one.
The man best poised to capture the top spot in the world ranking this week was Ernie Els. Els has played some spectacular golf only to come up short. At Augusta, he shot a final round 67 (including two eagles) only to have Phil Mickelson steal it away with a birdie on the final hole. For the U.S. Open at Shinicock Hills, Ernie again put himself in contention and in the final group with fellow countryman Retief Goosen. But the over-cooked course was too much and he faded badly with an 81 and watched as Goosen won another major. At the British Open, the drama continued to play out with Els needing only a birdie at the last to win another Claret Jug and possibly the number-one ranking. But Els missed the putt and lost in a playoff to PGA Tour Rookie Todd Hamilton. Seemingly undaunted by these heartbreaks, this week The Big Easy again climbed the leaderboard at a major: Starting his back nine on Saturday, he was tied for the lead. But he struggled with his driver and boggied the 15th and 18th holes. Despite his struggles, all he needed was a par on the last hole on Sunday to make the playoff. Instead, he three putted and ended up in a tie for fourth. Ernie, like Tiger, will have to wait another year for a shot at a major. Needing to finish in second place alone to take over the number-one slot, Ernie fell short yet again.
What about Phil Mickleson, the feel-good favorite of the year and the man who cruelly took that major from Ernie? Mickelson had been known as the “best player without a major” for so long it seemed almost permanent. After a horrible 2003 season, Mickelson rededicated himself to the game and focused on playing smart. It paid off. He won the Bob Hope to start the season and posted five straight top tens leading up to his breakthrough win at Augusta. Everywhere he went, the crowds cheered. At the U.S. Open it seemed as though Mickelson might make a run at a grand slam but a three putt on the 16th hole allowed Goosen to eke out a win. The British Open again saw Mickleson contending on Sunday, but despite a final round 68, he came up short and finished third. At this, the last major of the year, the crowds continued to cheer Mickleson on, but despite some exciting play, Lefty didn’t have enough gas to make a charge. First, second, third, and sixth is pretty impressive, but I am sure Mickleson will dream about what might have been. He was a couple of putts away from a season for the ages.
The best players in the world took a run at the last major of the season along the wind-swept course at Whistling Straits but only the most determined came out a winner. Vijay Singh had struggled in the majors all year and had traditionally struggled with Tiger in the field. But two weeks ago at the Buick Open, Singh stared down Tiger Woods and the surging John Daley to win his third tournament of the year–despite switching from a long-handled belly putter back to the traditional short stick. With a one-stroke lead after fifty-four holes things looked good but that pesky short stick let him down for 18 holes on Sunday. Singh shot the highest final round of any PGA Championship winner, a 76. Justin Leonard only needed a par on 18 to win, but his approach came up short and he missed his par putt to send it to a playoff with Singh and Chris DiMarco. Given new life in the playoff, Singh proceeded to bomb a 330-yard drive and make his first birdie of the tournament on the first playoff hole. He pared the next two for the victory. The major win tops off a sensational season for Singh. In 22 events he has finished in the top three seven times, including five wins. He leads the money list and is second in scoring average. Add it all up and he is tantalizingly close to overtaking Woods’s number-one ranking.
Deciding who is the best player in the world at any given moment is a tricky thing. The official ranking is a complex blend of variables designed to gauge the best player over the long haul–not who is hot on any particular day. But official ranking notwithstanding, nobody has played better than Vijay Singh in the last year. He has won more tournaments, more money, and as many majors as anyone in the game including Tiger, Mickleson, and Els this season. It may take a little longer for the rankings to reflect reality, but Singh has finally proven to the rest of us what he has always believed about himself–that he could be the best player in the world bar none.
–Kevin Holtsberry is a freelance writer.