By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 9, 2011; 11:33 PM
DORAL, FLA. - The world's No. 1 golfer has played the Masters three times, and never made the cut. His closest challenger, No. 2 on the planet, has yet to win a major championship, and his two victories in the last calendar year - at tournaments called the St. Jude Classic and the Nedbank Golf Challenge - didn't exactly rattle the sport. The third-ranked player broke a four-year winless drought within the past year and has missed the cut at 10 of the 30 majors in which he has played.
And at the end of the Cadillac Championship - an exclusive World Golf Championship event that begins here Thursday, with every one of the top 50 players in the world on hand - there's no telling what else might shift and who might fall where.
"I really don't care," said Martin Kaymer, a 26-year-old German and the aforementioned top-ranked player. "I've been No. 1 in the world at least for seven days. No one can take it away from me."
Until, of course, someone does. Golf, a staid and orderly sport, begins its unofficial run-up to the Masters, the year's first major, with the possibility of enduring constant upheaval. Last year at this time, top-ranked Tiger Woods was in the midst of a self-imposed exile following a sex scandal, sapping the sport of the player who had spent most of the previous decade atop everyone else, often by a wide margin. Woods returned to play 11 months ago, but he hasn't yet returned to form, and his record run of 281 consecutive weeks - nearly five-and-a-half years - at No. 1 ended last October.
Still, the door was open for several players - first Phil Mickelson, then Lee Westwood, now Kaymer, the PGA Championship winner - to take the title and secure it as Woods struggled. No one, though, has a strong hold.
"It can change weekly, the No. 1 in the world I think at the moment," Kaymer said.
Wednesday, Woods practiced on the back nine at Doral Golf Resort and Spa with a new coach, Sean Foley, trying to groove his new swing, the third major swing overhaul of his career. He did so as the fifth-ranked player in the world, a position that would have sounded absurd a year ago.
"It's about winning golf tournaments, and I haven't done that," said Woods, who last won in November 2009 - 18 starts ago, making this the longest drought of his professional career. "There's no reason for me to be up there at the top. You have to win golf tournaments and you have to do it consistently. Lee did it, Martin's done it, and that's what it takes. . . . [I] shouldn't be up there."
Though the results confirm that, there is still no bigger draw than Woods, and nothing electrifies the sport - and demands attention from outside - like Woods's appearance on the leader board. "We need him here," said Bubba Watson, a Woods buddy who has won twice since Woods's last victory and is now ranked 15th in the world.
To that end, Doral already has some buzz. Because tournament officials decided to group players by their rankings for the first two rounds - Nos. 1-3 will play together, Nos. 4-6, and so on - Woods and Mickelson, along with fourth-ranked U.S. Open champ Graeme McDowell, will provide a marquee group, if not necessarily marquee golf.
Mickelson won the 2010 Masters, Woods's first tournament back from his hiatus, but since has missed the cut or finished outside the top 20 twice as many times (12) as he has finished in the top 10 (six), with no subsequent wins, and has fallen to sixth. Westwood took the top spot from Woods last fall and held it for 17 weeks, but an indifferent start to this season - four tournaments, no finishes better than 15th - allowed Kaymer to seize it from him following a runner-up finish at last month's Match Play Championship.
Kaymer lost that event to Luke Donald, an American-educated Englishman who a year ago was ranked 25th but has bolted all the way to third - despite the fact he has just two worldwide wins since 2006.
"That adds to your confidence level, that there's only two players ranked higher than me in the world right now," said Donald, 33. "And that's pretty amazing to think about."
For years, Woods was the only player in that discussion, so "Who's No. 1?" simply wasn't a relevant question. His largest lead in the rankings - a 19.4-point advantage over Mickelson in 2001 - is more than twice Kaymer's current average of 8.24 ranking points per tournament. In any given week, the discussion wasn't who might be No. 1; it was whether anybody could beat Woods.
"I played for 10 years when that guy dominated, so it's tough to get a different mind-set on things," said Ernie Els, who once held the No. 1 spot for nine weeks. "Tiger was the dominant player. He won 14 majors. . . .
"So for us - myself, Phil, Vijay [Singh], Davis [Love III], Fred Couples, guys like that - to have played under a guy who was that good, we took a beating, not only from him, but from [the media] too. It was a tough 10, 12 years for us. . . . The youngsters have got something going for them. They didn't have to play under a guy that was so dominant."
Wednesday morning, Woods - so far from that dominance - drove the ball on No. 17, then stepped to the back of the tee box to examine video of the swing with Foley. After his practice round and a 45-minute session on the range, he spoke about his continued search for consistency with his new swing, as well as his altered personal situation. He has spoken, during this early part of the year, about needing more competitive rounds in order to perfect the swing. But this week will be just his fourth event of the year. Why?
"Because I have a family," Woods said. "I'm divorced. If you've been divorced with kids, then you would understand."
That, then, is part of the backdrop for how, a month before the Masters - where he has never made the cut - Kaymer finds himself as the world's best golfer. Woods, four times a Masters champion, is the chaser, not the chasee.
"I've been through it before," Woods said. "I've been through periods in my career where I have not won and I've struggled before. When you're making change with the game and change instructors, it takes a little time. Trust me: We have been working on it."