Becoming world's best is not a mad fantasy
WORLD RANKINGS Paul Gallagherexplains why Pádraig Harrington has a realistic chance to overtakle Mickelson - and even Woods
GIVEN PÁDRAIG Harrington's meteoric rise in world golf in recent weeks, it doesn't seem unreasonable to ask when, or even how, the Dubliner might overtake Phil Mickelson in the rankings. And given that Tiger Woods is on a lengthy sabbatical, how realistic would it be to catch the world's best player?
The problem with this exercise is that the world rankings are an extremely complicated beast, full of mathematical formulas where points are won and lost over a two-year period and permutations differ with every tour event around the world.
For example, the majors have a minimum 100 points on offer to the winner. The Players Championships on the European and US Tours carry 80 points, whereas the designated "flagship" events on the Australian, Japanese and South African Tours have a minimum of 32 points on offer.
Regular European and US Tour events have 24 points on offer, with individual points graded down from the winner to those tied 27th.
Harrington is third in the world with a points average of 7.85, Phil Mickelson is second and within touching distance on 9.87, while Woods is streets ahead on 18.36.
However, there is a big plus in Harrington's favour in his pursuit of overtaking Mickelson because two of his three major wins have come in the space of the last month. Big tournaments such as the British Open and the US PGA Championship - in such close proximity - means he is the player with the "momentum" in terms of world ranking points.
"A player's results are based over a rolling, two-year period," explains Ian Barker, from the European Tour, who is among the team of statisticians which compile the world rankings. "Points are won and lost and the average is collated depending on the number of events a player competes in over two years.
"Take Harrington, or any major winner: they win 100 points, and that points tally stays with the player for 13 weeks (or one yearly quarter). After that, points for any tournament win start to decay by one-eighth (or 12.5 points) for the next 13 weeks, and so the process continues for the two-year period."
In effect, that means Harrington is in a bumper period where he is benefiting from two major wins, whereas Mickelson's significant wins are "older and therefore the points decay more quickly", according to Barker.
"It will be another eight weeks before Harrington starts losing points for his Birkdale win, and a further four weeks before he starts to lose points from the his Oakland Hills win.
"Harrington is almost moving against the tide. He has a window of opportunity going on and his momentum is upwards thanks to the two majors in quick succession.
"For this reason, I'd have to say Mickelson is very much in Harrington's sights," added Barker.
It is not possible to be scientific on such matters, but projections can be a useful indicator. Barker gave a hypothetical situation to see how the rankings would play out between Harrington and Mickelson by week 52 if neither player competed for the rest of the year. Harrington would overtake the American with 7.24 points compared to Mickelson's 7.03.
Obviously, this will not happen, not least as they are staring into the FedEx Cup time of the season when increased world ranking points are on offer as the tournaments command better quality fields. (The quality of field in a tournament is determined by the number of the world's top-200 players entered in it).
As Woods, literally, puts his feet up and isn't expected to return to action this year, with many suggesting he will be out of action until the US Masters next April, this affords the opportunity to make more concrete projections.
"By the end of the year Woods' considerable advantage at the top of the rankings will slide from 18.36 to 11.98, assuming he doesn't play any tournaments. And if we're to assume Woods doesn't feature until the Masters, then his points average will drop to 7.71," explains Barker.
"We can say with certainty Woods will still be number one by the end of the calendar year, but if Mickelson or Harrington go mad during the FedEx Cup or in key events in the Road to Dubai Series (the European Tour's new end-of-season series), then mathematically they both have the potential to catch Woods, either just before or on the week of the 2009 Masters.
"As each week goes by it will be easier for Mickelson and Harrington to catch Woods because he is not adding to his total."
Harrington plans to compete more in the States after his US PGA win, with the focus on the FedEx Cup for a three-week stint. After a well-earned break this week, the 36-year-old returns to action at the Barclays Championship, the Deutsche Bank and the BMW Championship.
What it all boils down to is Harrington has the capacity to catch and overtake Mickelson by the end of the year if he has a good run in the FedEx Cup, while Woods will still be looking down from above regardless of what happens. If Woods remains sidelined until the Masters, then his closest pursuers have the potential to overtake him at the top by next April.
1T Woods (US) 18.36pts
2P Mickelson (US) 9.87
3Pádraig Harrington (Ire) 7.85
4S Garcia (Spa) 6.13
5V Singh (Fij) 5.63
6 H Stenson (Swe) 5.31
7 E Els (Rsa) 5.24
8 S Cink (US) 5.13
9 G Ogilvy (US) 5.12
10 S Stricker (US) 5.07
11 A Scott (Aus) 5.01
12 J Rose (Eng) 4.84
13 J Furyk (US) 4.73
14 L Westwood (Eng) 4.70
15 A Kim (US) 4.60
16 KJ Choi (Kor) 4.59
17 K Perry (US) 4.34
18 T Immelman (Rsa) 4.08
19 R Sabbatini (Rsa) 3.99
20 MA Jiminez (Spa)3.97