Golf

Brooks Koepka’s rise to No. 1 latest in revolving door of elite golfers to reach the apex

Twenty-three different men have been able to call themselves the No. 1 player in the world, according to the Official World Golf Rankings. Brooks Koepka is the latest addition to that club as he took home the CJ Cup in the wee hours of Sunday morning and overtook Dustin Johnson as the top player on the planet with the 2018 golf calendar year drawing to a close. 

Of the 23 golfers who have been No. 1, nearly half have happened since 2010, and three are new to the club this calendar year. Given that these rankings have been around over 30 years (since 1986), three new members in one 10-month span is certainly atypical. 

There are a number of reasons for this of course. The first and foremost is probably that Tiger Woods hoarded the top spot for long, long swaths of time in the early 2000s. He was No. 1 from 1999-2004 and 2005-2010 with only Vijay Singh standing between him and a decade-long streak of world domination. His reign denied players such as Phil Mickelson and Justin Leonard their time in the top slot.

The other reason the No. 1 spot has been shared this year by Koepka, Johnson, Justin Thomas and Justin Rose — all future Hall of Famers — dovetails nicely with the first one. Players are simply more equivalently better. That is, there might not be the dominant No. 1 player in today’s game like we saw with Tiger, but the floor has been raised and the never-ending well of talent has been spread throughout the top 10, 15, 20 and even 40 players in the world.

Six years ago, Koepka was ranked No. 1,459 in the world and about to embark on the Challenge Tour. Now, a little over 75 months later, nobody alive is better at golf.

“I look at where I started, my first pro start was in Switzerland and I don’t think I could have said six years later that I would be No. 1 in the world,” Koepka said. “I think it’s incredible. All these places I’ve won at, we saw a stat yesterday where it was I’ve cracked the top 1,000, 500, 400, 300 and so on, so on. I only cracked any … I think the top 10 in the United States, everywhere else has been in a different country and it’s probably fitting that I did it in Korea.”

Koepka will not be the end of it. Of the top 15 players in the OWGR right now, it’s easy to envision Bryson DeChambeau, Jon Rahm, Tommy Fleetwood, Rickie Fowler and Patrick Reed rising to the top spot. Not all of them will, but all of them easily could. There are also names outside of the top 50 or even 100 that most of us have never even heard of who will someday contend for the No. 1 spot.

Heck, DeChambeau was ranked No. 99 in the world at the end of last year. He played his way up into the top 10, is now ranked No. 7 and could feasibly ascend to No. 1. (For those wondering, Jhonattan Vegas and C.T. Pan are ranked No. 99 and 100 right now).

Anyone trying to make the jump will not only have to beat out others trying to do the same, but they’ll also have to beat out former No. 1 players like Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day just to sniff the top. The upper crust of golf is an absolute bloodbath of elite — and in some cases all-time — talent that we’re only beginning to see play their best golf. 

There are fun aspects to both eras. The Tiger era was more college football. Big Cat was Alabama, everybody else was playing for second. We’re in the NFL era of the rankings now where in any given year, you have no idea who, of up to 10 or 12 or 15 teams, is going to end up on top of the pile at the end of the season. This year it looks like it’s going to be Koepka. Next year it could be Rahm or McIlroy or somebody like Tony Finau.

Regardless, the constant back and forth of the title “No. 1 golfer in the world” will bounce around over the next few years. It’s an actual mountain players can dream of climbing (unlike when Woods was on top), and several, like Koepka, will do so. That keeps golf fresh, makes it more interesting and continually shines a light on just how great the talent out there currently is. The more Koepkas we have the better, and we’re almost certain to get more Koepkas in the months and years ahead.

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