Golf's Fab Four ready to cross swords

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The Independent Online

The first encounter between Lee Westwood and Tiger Woods since they switched spots at the top of the world ranking was not exactly the momentous occasion some thought it might be here yesterday.

A pair of photographers crouched into position on the far end of the range at Sheshan International Golf Club, where Westwood was quietly hitting wedges and Woods was quickly approaching from the putting green.

"Westy... Billy," Woods said to the new No 1 and his caddie, Billy Foster. Woods never stopped walking. "Tiger," Westwood responded, turning his head briefly before settling over his next shot.

They have been friends for as long as they have been on their respective tours, and the exchange was similar to countless others. The only difference was the pecking order in the world rankings.

There has been much talk since Westwood ended the American's 281-week reign on Monday, with Woods' former coach Butch Harmon, particularly scathing about the Englishman's ascension. Harmon said the ranking system "sucked", before adding: "Did Westwood win a major this year or any year? I think not."

In contrast, when asked whether Westwood was a worthy No 1, Woods told the BBC yesterday: "Absolutely. Look at where he's finished in the majors. He hasn't won one but he's come so close. He's been by far the most consistent of the players in the majors the last two years and it's just a matter of time for Lee [until he wins a major]. He's made enormous leaps in his game."

However, Woods is just one of three men who could ensure Westwood takes a leap backwards on Sunday. The top of golf is so congested at the moment that four players – Westwood, Woods, Martin Kaymer and Phil Mickelson – could end the week at No 1 without even winning this WGC HSBC Champions event. If Steve Stricker and Jim Furyk had travelled over to China for this WGC event, they also would have had a shot at No 1.

It's possible that the highest finisher among Westwood, Woods and Kaymer will be crowned No 1, provided they are in the top 20. Meanwhile, Mickelson needs to finish in the top two. Golf is no longer about birdies and bogeys these days, it requires a calculator as the maths is hellishly complex.

To kick off the festivities this week, the latest version of the "Fab Four" gathered on Shanghai's riverfront yesterday and touched swords in a photo opportunity to depict what organisers hope will be an epic battle for the summit. The ranking scenario is reminiscent of 1997, when four players – Woods, Norman, Ernie Els and Colin Montgomerie – were all in the hunt for the No 1 spot around the US Open at Congressional.

The first time Woods topped the order, he lasted up there a full week before being replaced by Els, who was supplanted by Norman a week later, and then it went back to Woods. It rotated among those three over the next year before Woods took over.

Of course, that was a long time ago, although Woods claimed his desire to win remains as strong as it always has. And with 14 majors he still has Jack Nicklaus's record haul of 18 in his sights. "It's the highest benchmark there is," he said. "It took Jack over 20 years and I haven't been playing that long. At the end of the day, hopefully I'll have more than 18. I've still got loads of great years ahead of me."

Westwood will just be praying there is not four great rounds ahead of Tiger. Westwood tees off tomorrow in the company of Mickelson and Y E Yang at 9.45am (1.45am GMT), while Woods' slot is 20 minutes earlier with Els and the Ulsterman Graeme McDowell.