There was a time, not so many burst fire hydrants ago, when Ian Poulter would talk about the possibility of challenging Tiger Woods at the top of the rankings and the golfing world would fall around laughing, screeching how the deluded soul's claims happened to be even more outlandish than his trousers. No longer.
When announcing yesterday that he could become world No 1 this summer, Poulter effected only the odd raised eyebrow in a roomful of agreeing nods. This recognition was in large part down to the forlorn state of Woods at the moment and also because Poulter was not merely referring to himself. This was no rerun of the flamboyant Englishman's famous "when I reach my full potential it will be just me and Tiger" declaration of a few years ago. This was more "just me and eight others and Tiger".
"It's closer at the top of the rankings than it ever was because of all the points Tiger has dropped," said Poulter. "If they play great for three or four months, get a couple of wins and a couple of big finishes, I can see anybody in the top 10 getting to the points that Tiger is at now – including myself."
Poulter was speaking on the eve of the BMW PGA Championship, an event which tees off at the West Course boasting five of the world's top 10. Four of them happen to hail from the United Kingdom (Ernie Els being the other). Yet with respect to Poulter, of this quartet Lee Westwood holds the most realistic chance of usurping Woods. On Monday the 37-year-old awoke to find himself in the career-high position of No 3 and with the tag of "world's best" in tantalising focus. Although Westwood would be oblivious to exactly how tantalising.
Unlike Poulter and many other of his fellow professionals, Westwood does not include an algorithm book as a fixture in his luggage set so will not be aware of the complex calculations. Victory here in the European Tour's flagship tournament will earn him not only £640,000 but more importantly enough ranking points to bring him within a top-two finish at next month's US Open of the No 1 spot. Plainly that is dependent on the form of Woods and Phil Mickelson, but listening to Westwood yesterday it was clear he does not believe that anyone right now can depend on the form of Woods or even of Mickelson.
"Tiger's performance and schedule are unpredictable at the moment, aren't they?" said the man who has finished third, third, second in the last three majors. "We have all seen that the last few weeks. Phil is obviously world class and already has a major this year, but his performances are very much up and down as well. And the world rankings are all about consistency, so I suppose yeah, No 1 and No 2 are more achievable than they have been in the last few years."
Westwood is the most consistent in the world, although his chances of making a few giant strides at Wentworth are belittled by his inconsistency on the West Course. But then are they? As Graeme McDowell said in yesterday's Independent "this is not Wentworth but Wentworth Mark II". "Any changes were going to be good changes for me," said Westwood. "I just always struggled on the greens here for some reason. I could never really figure it out, but some courses just don't fit your eye sometimes."
That was then, this is now. Els has been employed by the Wentworth owner, Richard Caring, to redesign Harry Colt's masterpiece and much of the talk here in the build-up has been the almost complete personality change the 82-year-old course has undergone. Not all of the chat has been positive and yesterday Paul Casey – yet another English member of the top 10 – dared venture the opinion that the sacred layout should be protected from the radical intentions of millionaires.
By his own admission, Caring played a hands-on role in the alterations and many see danger in keen amateurs being let loose with a shovel. It was a subject Casey brought up with the Royal and Ancient chief executive, Peter Dawson, when running into him in the car park on Tuesday. "The idea I suggested was that maybe we should introduce some scheme for courses like we have for historic buildings in this country," he said. "I mean Ernie's beautiful house here on the 16th. He owns it, but it doesn't give him the right to paint it pink and put a tin roof on it. When you're an owner of a Grade II listed building, it's much like you're the caretaker for the next generation."
As the defending champion, he more than anyone may bemoan the total makeover, especially as he and Ross Fisher put on such a show last year. However, Casey is holding back judgement on the overhaul – and, in particular, the new 18th complete with water feature – until he sees it in operation. Perhaps he is wise to display such diplomacy as here this week the assembled pros have already been warned to "get real" and understand the perilous state of global finance and the disastrous effect it could have on their profession. The demand was made by Johann Rupert, one of golf's best-known backers, who was the guest speaker at the European Tour's annual dinner on Tuesday.
The South African, whose company is responsible for the Dunhill Links Championship and who is chairman of the South African PGA Tour, told the players of the responsibilities they have to sponsors. Rupert did so in no uncertain terms, also pleading with Rory McIlroy not to spend his winnings on any more Lamborghinis but to put the money in the bank. The 21-year-old welcomed the advice, as did Westwood.
"We would have to have a very sheltered view as a Tour and as professional golfers to think that sponsors were always going to be around forever and always want to stick money into golf," he said. "It would be great if we all got together in a room as a Tour and let Johann explain what we can give extra. The players coming fresh out here need a bit of education." Westwood is planning to give them a lesson of a different variety these next four days.
*McIlroy has been buoyed by messages of congratulations from three of the biggest names in golf. The 21-year-old Northern Irishman, a winner at Quail Hollow in America earlier this month, was at home when letters arrived on the same morning from Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, to go with one from Seve Ballesteros.
Four from Wentworth with Tiger in their sights
World ranking 6 Age 34
Has already exceeded everybody's expectation by entering the world top five, albeit only briefly, with victory in February's World Match Play in Tucson – everybody's but his, that is. Nobody extracts more from his talent than this fantastic short-game player.
WR 3 Age 37
The most consistent golfer in the world with top three finishes in the last three majors. The Englishman has only Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson above him in the rankings. A win at Wentworth would bring the "world's best" mantle within one good display.
WR 8 Age 32
Advanced to the world's top three, himself, last year and but for a rib injury might even still be up there. On his day Casey is capable of anything and this time 12 months ago the days were arriving with giddying haste. Is quietly returning to that form.
WR 9 Age 21
His 62 at the Quail Hollow Championship three weeks ago was the finest final round of this and many other golfing seasons. His maiden American title was so good that Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Seve Ballesteros all wrote him with their congratulations.
Selected first-round tee times at BMW PGA Championship
(GB & Irl unless stated):
0720 D Howell, P Hedblom (Swe), A Wall
0730 G McDowell, E Molinari (It), A Hansen (Den)
0740 A Quiros (Sp), I Poulter, M Kaymer (Ger)
0750 E Els (SA), R Davies, R Fisher
0800 Fr Molinari (Ita, S Hansen (Den), P Harrington
0810 S-Y Noh (S Kor), D Clarke, M Manassero (It)
0820 T Bjorn (Den), M Fraser (Aus), P McGinley
0830 D Horsey, B Rumford (Aus), D Willett
0845 O Fisher, S Gallacher, J Edfors (Swe)
0855 R Gonzalez (Arg), R Rock, R Finch
0905 B Lane, P Lawrie, G Fernandez-Castaño (Sp)
1120 B Dredge, M Erlandsson (Swe), M Foster
1150 L Oosthuizen (SA), T Jaidee (Thai), J Rose
1200 R Karlsson (Swe), R McIlroy, L Donald
1215 L Westwood, O Wilson, H Stenson (Swe)
1225 C Schwartzel (SA), P Casey, M-A Jimenez (Sp)
1235 J Morrison, C Montgomerie, S Kjeldsen (Den)
1245 N Dougherty, F Andersson Hed (Swe), P Hanson (Swe)
1255 R McGowan, S Dyson, G Maybin
1305 S Dodd, C Wood, T Aiken (SA)
1315 I Garrido (Sp), N Fasth (Swe), K Ferrie
1335 R Jacquelin (Fr), P Marksaeng (Thai), P Price
1345 M Siem (Ger), D Lee (NZ), P Martin (Sp)
1400 R Cabrera Bello (Sp), T Levet (Fr), A Kang (US)
1410 J Donaldson, S Webster, G Storm
1420 J-F Lucquin (Fr), S Lowry, M Jonzon (Swe)
1430 T Goya (Arg), D Drysdale, C Nilsson (Swe)
1450 J Randhawa (Ind), A Raitt, M Ilonen (Fin)