By Marla Ridenour
Beacon Journal staff writer
It might not come tonight, or next week. But a changing of the guard in the world of golf seems inevitable.
Tiger Woods' fall from grace will soon be coupled with a tumble from the top.
Masters Tournament champion Phil Mickelson can take over the No. 1 spot in the World Golf Rankings if he ties for fourth or better today in the final round of the $8.5 million Bridgestone Invitational and Woods finishes outside the top 37. After Saturday's action at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Mickelson stood tied for 10th at 5 under, 4 strokes behind leaders Ryan Palmer and Sean O'Hair, and Woods was 78th.
Woods has worn the mantle for so long 269 consecutive weeks and 611 in his career that it seemed almost unattainable. Through 2009, he was flattening everyone in his wake when he was healthy, and sometimes when he wasn't.
Now one of the men who has been nipping at his heels for years is about to become top dog. And Mickelson isn't even the hottest player on the PGA or European PGA tours.
As Woods vacates the premises, he's leaving a pack scrambling for his scraps and a huge question with no easy answer.
Who is the best player in the world?
Is it Mickelson? Ernie Els? Lee Westwood?
O'Hair almost jokingly suggested it might be Champions Tour sensation Fred Couples. And Couples' three victories on the senior circuit are surpassed by Bernhard Langer's four.
''It's probably Ernie and Phil right now,'' No. 5 Jim Furyk said, conceding he needed to check the statistics for multiple tournament winners and money earnings.
Mickelson's peers feel he deserves the honor, especially with three other top-five finishes after the Masters and four career major victories. But the 2010 Masters is his lone major triumph since 2007.
''If you look back over the last two years, I think you've got to look at Phil,'' Els said. ''Obviously last year Tiger was incredible again, but if there was somebody who stepped up, it was Phil. After such a long time out here, he would be your deserved No. 1, if there's another No. 1.''
Irishman Padraig Harrington asked, ''Has Phil ever been the world's No. 1?'' Told no, Harrington added: ''He deserves it. That would be great.''
U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell and British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen could make a run. Both may receive player of the year votes, especially if they perform well in next week's PGA Championship.
No. 3 in the world rankings, Westwood might have easily staked claim to being the hottest player in the world had he not been forced to withdraw from the Bridgestone and the PGA Friday. A torn calf muscle resulting in painful ankle swelling cost Westwood his own shot at No. 1.
Westwood finished in the top three in four of the past five majors and trails only McDowell in the European PGA Tour's Race to Dubai standings, which are based on earnings.
''One of the hottest players on the planet has just taken the next six weeks off,'' McDowell said of Westwood.
''I would have put Lee as the most consistent of the three players at the top,'' Harrington said. ''I would put Lee as the most consistent, I would put Phil, from what I saw at the U.S. Open as the best when he's on form, and I would put Tiger as the best when he comes back to form. Each one of them could be the world's No. 1, on slightly different merits.''
Els, Furyk, Steve Stricker and Justin Rose have two victories apiece on the PGA Tour. In Europe, that distinction belongs to McDowell, Miguel Angel Jimenez, Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel.
With Westwood sidelined, Els also drew mention from his peers. He sees signs that he could be in for a strong finish and said Saturday's round of 6-under 64 ''came at the right time.''
Stricker, No. 4 in the world, even suggested unknowns Jeff Overton and Matt Kuchar, Nos. 4 and 8 on the PGA Tour money list. No offense to those two talented young men, but some might roll their eyes if that's what's in store post-Tiger.
Even though some dispute the validity of the world rankings because they span two years, it's a prize to be cherished, Els said. He still remembers what it felt like, even though he held the spot briefly three times in 1997 and 1998.
''It's an unbelievable feeling,'' Els said. ''I was fortunate enough to have it for nine weeks. You feel on top of the world, really . . . all the hard work [validated].''
McDowell believes what's coming will be good for golf, even if it's only a shakeup in numbers most don't understand.
''I think it would be great for golf to see Mickelson take over Tiger's No. 1,'' McDowell said. ''It would be great for the game to have Tiger chasing again, get him refocused, to get him back and see how he reacts to that.
''Not to say it's been unexciting, him dominating the world of golf. It's been fantastic. We're playing golf in the Tiger Woods era. There's no illusions that he makes the game financially lucrative for us all. But the game is wide open now. Guys are better and stronger and tougher than they ever were. Obviously with Tiger being less invincible than he's ever been, it opens the fields right up.''
Yes, change is coming. By this evening, Mickelson might have vaulted to the top, even if he's not the game's best player. Unfortunately, Woods' successor might turn No. 1 into a lifetime achievement award.