Tiger Woods yesterday refused to reveal whether he would accept a wildcard for the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor. "I'm planning on playing my way on to the team," he repeated three times to the insistent inquisitor. If only the man was so adept at dodging fire hydrants.
And so the speculation will continue. Corey Pavin, the US captain, had planned to speak to Woods at next week's USPGA Championship to discover how he felt about turning out in the Usk Valley in two months' time, in an event he has never truly warmed to. But if yesterday's statement was anything to go by, Woods is no mood to talk about it. He may be out of the automatic positions with just two qualifying weeks remaining, but to him his place is as recoverable as his season. "I think if I do well this week I should sew up my spot," he said.
Usually Woods would have every reason to take as given a big cheque at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational which tees off today in Akron. But not now. In fact, many will anticipate his partner for the first two rounds playing the headline role. Certainly, Lee Westwood has the incentive. The opportunity is right there in Ohio to become Britain's first world No 1 in 16 years. And at the same time to drive the stake ever further into Woods' competitive heart.
Since his very public fall from grace, the 34-year-old's troubles off the course have been mirrored by his mediocrity on it. Woods' position in the Ryder Cup charts says it all, as does the fact that it is August and he has still to win his first tournament of 2010. Previously the longest he has gone winless is May. "It has been a long 10 months," he sighed, in a rare moment of candour. Woods went on to all but admit that the separation with his wife has affected his work on the range because of the time he now spends with his two children. "With the kids I haven't had the time to practise anywhere near as much as I used to," he said. "Nor should I. My kids are more important."
But Woods denied that meant he would never again be able to reach the majesty of old. "It is about being more efficient with my time, " said the 14-time major winner, before going on to express hopes of a turnaround in form. "Of late I have been driving well. The iron game has been spotty and I have not putted well. If I clean all that up, it will be good."
Many will roll their eyes at what they will no doubt see as the continued self-delusion of a champion now riven by self-doubt. What does seem fair to declare is that if the so-called Tiger drought is to end anywhere, then surely it is at the layout once nicknamed "The Monster" by Arnold Palmer. Firestone has long been Woods' personal playground, with a free ATM machine in the corner of the yard.
Last year he set a record for both the PGA and European Tour by winning for a seventh time out of 10 visits. He has not lost in Akron since 2004 – and then he was second. In his last four visits he has earned in excess of £3m, or in other terms, more than £3,000 for every shot, more than £11,000 for every hole and almost £220,000 for every round. While Pebble Beach and St Andrews have always been referred to as the major courses to which he is most suited, there is no doubting which WGC venue Woods has made his own. Tiger in Akron has always been like Capone in Chicago.
Basically, if he does not contend this week then no-one can deny the comparative wretched state of his game. And there is a fair chance that if he once again performs poorly then the No 1 status will be latest companion to walk out on him. Phil Mickelson could finish fourth and finally usurp him, although the left-hander has been presented with the ultimate leapfrogging opportunity in his last six events, but has flopped short each time. This, however, is the first time in Westwood's career where the cherished tag is but one good tournament away.
With second places in two of the season's three majors so far, with four top-threes from the last five majors, with a runner-up finish in "the fifth major" The Players in May, with a win in Memphis and top 10s seemingly everywhere else, few would dispute that the 37-year-old is the most consistent golfer in the world. Fewer still should argue Westwood is not the best tee-to-green merchant at the moment. Put this together with Firestone also holding a particular place in his affections – he came second there two years ago – and any British confidence of a first world No 1 since Nick Faldo in 1994 is completely justified. Even Woods, himself, recognises the class of his challenger.
"We've being going at it a long time, going back to Walker Cup days," said Woods. "What he's done the last couple of years – we always knew he had that type of talent and that level of play and now he's showing it."
Westwood would be the second player (after David Duval) in the 24-year history of the rankings to assume the top spot without having won a major beforehand. Indeed, Westwood has not won a WGC event yet, although second could even be enough for him if Woods was to finish outside the top nine and Mickelson was not to win. Yet maths is not really Westwood's thing and it is the torn calf muscle which will have been causing the sleepless nights since beating all but the inspired Louis Oosthuizen at the Open.
"I've hardly hit a ball these two weeks," he confessed yesterday. "I haven't played and am under-prepared really. But I could still play well. If it was a five out of 10 at the Open, it's probably a six and half, seven now. The positive side is I've had a mid-term break almost. So I'm feeling refreshed and ready to go."
All the way to the very summit of the game, perchance? Westwood may never get a better chance.
Who will top the rankings by Sunday?
World Ranking: 1
Form: Finished fourth on his Masters return, but the same finish at the US Open has been his only top-10 place in six events since.
World Ranking: 2
Form: Produced masterful display to win the Masters in April but has struggled since and was just joint 48th at the Open at St Andrews.
World Ranking: 3
Form: Continued his fine major form in finishing second at the Open. Became the first European to win St Jude Classic in June.
What Westwood must do
The path to becoming World No 1 is not simple for the British player. If he wins this week in Akron, Woods must finish lower than a two-way tie for second. If Westwood finishes runner-up, Woods needs to finish outside the top nine and Mickelson must not win. Meanwhile Mickelson can finish as low as fourth and usurp Woods, so long as Westwood is not first or second and Woods finishes outside the top 37.
Britons who have ruled the world...
Since the inception of the world ranking system in 1986 there have 13 different No 1s. Only two have been British:
The Englishman topped the ranking on four different occasions, the first time in 1990, the last in 1994. Faldo is one of three golfers (Greg Norman and Tiger Woods being the others) to hold the position for a full calendar year. With 98 weeks in total, only Norman (331 weeks) and Woods (611) have held it longer.
The Welshman became the fifth player to top the rankings after winning the 1991 Masters. Woosnam held on to the No 1 tag for 50 weeks before giving way to Fred Couples before the 1992 Masters.
And two Scots who almost made it...
Almost overhauled Greg Norman in 1988 when winning the Greensboro Open and the Masters. Finished seventh on the US Tour money list that year but never recovered that form.
The eight-time Order of Merit winner held the No 2 ranking on more than once occasion but never came closer than assuming the top position than when losing the 1997 US Open play-off to Ernie Els.Reuse content