Column: Koepka’s biggest feat as No. 1 is getting there
Reaching No. 1 in the world felt even sweeter to Brooks Koepka because of how he got there.
Golf is about winning, and the world ranking is merely a result of that. For all the math involved in a formula that tries to measure performance over two years, it’s a lot easier to understand when the new No. 1 is posing with a trophy.
Dustin Johnson knows that feeling. So does Rory McIlroy.
“I always wanted to earn my way to No. 1 in the world,” Koepka said after his four-shot victory at the CJ Cup in South Korea. “And I felt like if I played and won, that would be exactly how I could draw it up.”
Justin Rose would have preferred it that way instead of reaching No. 1 last month by missing a 4-foot putt to lose in a playoff at the BMW Championship. Tiger Woods got to No. 1 for the first time with a tie for 19th in the 1997 U.S. Open. There were no fist pumps that day.
Lee Westwood and Nick Faldo did not even play the week they rose to No. 1.
Of the 23 players who ascended to the top of the world ranking, Koepka became the 11th to get there for the first time by winning.
Nick Price remains the only player to reach No. 1 for the first time by winning a major, the 1994 PGA Championship at Southern Hills. Vijay Singh had one of the more gratifying moments in 2004 when he not only ended the five-year reign of Woods by winning the Deutsche Bank Championship, he played with Woods in the final group.
Ultimately, though, it’s all about getting there.
And that’s why it was such a big deal for Koepka. As much as he was trending as the best player in the world — especially after a double major season — there is no guarantee of being No. 1 until your name is at the top of the 8,712 others listed in the Official World Golf Ranking.
This was the sixth tournament where Koepka had a chance to reach No. 1.
He was poised to get there at the start of the FedEx Cup playoffs until Johnson birdied his last four holes for a 61 to stay No. 1 by a slim margin. The next week, Johnson closed with a 64 to finish one shot ahead of Koepka. And the following week, Rose went from No. 4 to No. 1 with his playoff loss in the BMW Championship.
Koepka shot 78 in the second round at East Lake to squander another opportunity. He tied for seventh at the Dunhill Links Championship.
And then, finally, he won the CJ Cup with a birdie-par-eagle finish for a 29 on the back nine.
There was another multiple major champion who would say otherwise.
Because while golf celebrates a new No. 1 — the fourth this year, matching the most in a single year since 1997 — Koepka becoming the 23rd player at No. 1 is another reminder that the list does not include Phil Mickelson.
Lefty looked to be a lock to reach No. 1 in 2010, when Woods was recovering from the downfall in his personal life and the gap was shrinking by the week.
Mickelson won the Masters to get back to No. 2. He was runner-up at Quail Hollow. The Players Championship was the first time in his career that he had a mathematical chance to be No. 1. Needing a victory, he bogeyed three of his opening six holes, closed with a 74 and tied for 17th. Then it was off to Colonial, where he had won two years earlier. He missed the cut. At the Memorial, he tied for fifth.
“I don’t know the ranking system or world points or how that works, nor do I care,” Mickelson said that year. “I just know that if I continue to play well, ultimately in the long run, it will happen.”
But it never did.
He had nine more chances that year and except for a tie for fourth at the U.S. Open, never came particularly close. And when he showed up in Shanghai, golf finally had a new No. 1 — Westwood, which had to sting even more.
Westwood never won a major. He just played some of his best golf at the right time, which was the time Woods went on hiatus. Mickelson played some of his best golf when Woods was at his peak, which is why Lefty might forever hold the distinction of being No. 2 longer than any player who has never been No. 1.
That’s one problem Koepka won’t have.
Instead, he joins Johnson, Rose and Justin Thomas as players to occupy No. 1 this year. The last time that happened was in 1997 with Greg Norman, Ernie Els, Tom Lehman and Woods.
Lehman lasted only one week. He reached the top ranking with a tie for fourth at Hilton Head and never was introduced as the No. 1 player in the world. Lehman took a month off and when he returned at Colonial, he was back to No. 2.
But at least he was there.
Mickelson wouldn’t trade his five majors or 46 worldwide victories for the No. 1 ranking. His legacy is secure without it. But he probably would have taken No. 1 even for a week.