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Dublin: 9°C Saturday 15 May 2021

In the swing: Donald and Westwood still have Major questions to answer

They may be the two highest-ranked players in the world, but can Luke Donald and Lee Westwood be considered truly “great” without winning one of golf’s Majors? Neil Cullen gives his view.

Image: David Davies/PA Archive/Press Association Images

NEVER BEFORE HAD there been a shootout to become the world’s number one player.

As Luke Donald and Lee Westwood entered into the playoff for the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, they weren’t just playing for victory in the European Tour’s flagship tournament. They were also going head to head for the world number one spot.

It was very fitting indeed that one of the European Tour’s biggest events would host a battle for the summit of world golf as the rankings have taken on a very European flavour over the last 18 months or so.

There was almost nothing separating Donald and Westwood in the rankings before the tournament got underway on Thursday, and even 72 holes of regulation play did nothing to help produce a winner. Westwood was unlucky on the first playoff hole, as his third shot spun back off the green into the water, but somehow you felt it was going to take such a cruel twist of fate to finally produce a winner.

It is interesting, however, that neither Donald nor Weswtood have a Major Championship in their respective trophy cabinets. In fact, of all the players who have held the number one ranking since the rankings began in 1986, Donald and Westwood are the only number ones not have a Major Championship.

It raises a lot of interesting questions. Is the number one ranked player really the best player in the world without having won a Major? Do you have to win a Major to truly be considered a “great” of the game? In terms of career-defining achievement, is a ranking or a Major more important?

There’s no definitive answer to any of these questions, but it is an interesting debate nonetheless. Phil Mickelson provides an interesting case study. There is no doubt that Mickelson will be remembered as one of the greatest players of his generation. It’s a big if, but if he hadn’t been a contemporary of Tiger Woods, he may well have dominated the game of golf during his career.

Phil has never been the world number one. He had plenty of chances to get there, over 15 chances last year alone, but didn’t convert on any occasion. Is that a sign of a weakness in his game or his mentality, or does it mean that the rankings don’t really concern him?

Mickelson’s career will be defined by his four Major Championship wins, not his world ranking. The reason is that by winning Majors, you prove yourself capable of beating the best assembled fields under the most pressure. Sure, there have been one hit wonders like Todd Hamilton or Shaun Micheel, but that’s just part of sport. Sometimes the outsider will have his day.

Whether Mickelson ever achieves the number one position or not really doesn’t amount to much. For Westwood and Donald, on the other hand, winning a Major is arguably more important than any world ranking.

One only has to think of some of the high profile players who haven’t won Majors to realise how important winning them can be. Colin Montgomerie is a good example. He was the highest earner on the European Tour seven times in a row, eight in total. He was European Tour player of the year four times. He has 40 tournament wins as a professional.

What is the glaring void on his CV? No Major Championship. The fact that he didn’t reach world number one doesn’t amount to anything of great significance. Sure, it would have been a nice box to tick, but when he looks back at his career, it will be the lack of a Major Championship rather than his failure to reach world number one that will rankle with him the most.

The point is not that rankings are irrelevant, they are a mostly accurate barometer of form over the last two years and give us an insightful way of following players’ progress, as well as providing us with some interesting story lines and sub-plots. The point is that while reaching the number one spot is a significant achievement, to be truly regarded as a so-called “great”, you have to back up such form with victory in a Major Championship. There are no two ways about it.

Honourable mention

This week’s honourable mention goes to Shane Lowry. The 2009 Irish Open Champion has had a rough ride over the last few months with a wrist injury that ruled him out of any golf over the winter and early spring period.

His fourth place finish at the BMW PGA Championship at the weekend was a remarkable performance given his extended absence from the game. Not only that, but he picked up the biggest pay cheque of his career, €191,100.

Most of us would be celebrating for a few days if we picked up that kind of cash, but Lowry was straight back out on the course on Monday at Walton Health for the final qualifying stage of next month’s US Open.

With 11 spots up for grabs, Lowry posted an eight under par total for his two rounds to finish second and will now tee it up alongside the best in the game at Congressional Country Club on Father’s Day weekend.

Read more of Neil Cullen’s weekly golf column here >

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