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The Golfers Who Never Became World Number One

By: | Thu 12 Oct 2023

MUCH is made of the ranking system in men's golf. Being named world number one is surely the greatest honour that can be bestowed upon any golfer. And it comes with much gold - anybody who reaches the top knows they will receive all sorts of bonuses from their sponsors. And to get there he will have won lots of tournaments anyway and be a millionaire many times over.

When you think of world number ones since the Official World Golf Ranking was estalished in 1986, names such as Tiger Woods, Greg Norman, Nick Faldo, Rory McIlroy, Scottie Scheffler, Ian Woosnam, Jordan Spieth, Brooks Koepka and Luke Donald come to mind.

But many legendary players never achieved that status. He may have won 18 majors but Jack Nicklaus was never officially the world’s best golfer. To be fair, that was simply because the rankings system was introduced long after he had passed the peak of his powers.

There are many others who have enjoyed stellar careers without ever being crowned world number one. And some of the names on this list may surprise you. To put things in some kind of perspective, consider this - Woods spent 906 weeks in the top 10.

Phil Mickelson

Phil Mickelson

(Image Credit: Kevin Diss Photography)

Lefty spent 775 weeks in the top 10 but, incredibly, never reached number one. His highest position was second. Remember that we are talking about a man who won six majors, finished second in the US Open on six occasions and won 45 times on the PGA Tour. He also played in the Ryder Cup 11 times. Sadly for Mickelson, he was at the peak of his powers at the same time Woods was dominating the game.

Davis Love III

Love spent 465 weeks in the top 10, with a highest of second. He won the Players Championship twice and the US PGA in 1997. He won 21 times on the PGA Tour and twice captained the US Ryder Cup team. He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2017.

Sergio Garcia

It is hard to believe that the Spaniard never reached the pinnacle. He spent 453 weeks in the top 10 with a highest of second. Garcia first burst upon the scene as a 19-year-old when he went head to head with Tiger Woods at the 1999 US PGA Championship, eventually finishing second best. He has been a serial winner on both the PGA and DP World Tour. His finest moment came when he won The Masters in 2017.

Jim Furyk

Furyk was a fixture in the top 10 for 442 weeks, reaching a best of second. Ironically the former US Open champion is probably best known for finishing second in tournaments. He is also the only man on the PGA Tour to have recorded a round of 58. 

Colin Montgomerie

Monty won the European Tour’s order of merit eight times, including seven in a row. The Scot also finished his career with an unbeaten record in Ryder Cup singles. He came close to winning the US Open but never won on the PGA Tour. It was good enough for him to spend 400 weeks in the top 10 with a highest of second.

Henrik Stenson

From 1999 until 2010, the Swede enjoyed a period of sustained success. He won the WGC Accenture World Match Play, topped the European Tour’s order of merit, made his Ryder Cup debut and won the Players Championship. But his game went into freefall in 2011 and 2012 and he fell from fifth in the world rankings to 230th. But he regained his best form in 2013, finishing second at The Open and third at the US PGA. His career-high came in 2016 when he won The Open at Royal Troon, beating Phil Mickelson on a thrilling final day. Stenson spent 338 weeks in the top 10, achieving a best of second place.

Jose Maria Olazabal

The Spaniard was a fabulous iron player and possessed a wondrous short game. He won six times on the PGA Tour and 23 times on the European Tour. Olazabal won The Masters in 1994 but feared his career might be over when he began to suffer from crippling foot pain. He made a remarkable - and highly emotional - comeback, winning at Augusta for the second time in 1999. He spent a total of 314 weeks in the top 10, with a best of second in the world rankings.

Padraig Harrington

Despite winning both The Open and the US PGA Championship in 2008, the Irishman was never ranked as the world’s best golfer. He also won The Open in 2007. He won six times on the PGA Tour and 15 times on the European Tour and has victories in Asia to his credit. He continues to play superbly on the Champions Tour. He spent 304 weeks in the top 10 and, incredibly, only achieved a best of third place.

Paul Azinger

The American was one of the feistiest individuals on the PGA Tour, a man who never knew when he was beaten. He enjoyed 12 victories on the PGA Tour. His crowning glory came when he won the US PGA Championship in 1993. He was diagnosed with cancer but won his battle and returned to the PGA Tour and won again. He captained the US Ryder Cup team to a famous win in 2008, beating Nick Faldo’s team - Faldo had been something of a nemesis during their playing days. Azinger spent 292 weeks in the top 10. His highest position was fourth.

Retief Goosen

The South African won the US Open twice, in 2001 and 2004. He also enjoyed a further 14 top-10 finishes in the majors. Goosen won seven times on the PGA Tour, 14 times on the European Tour and 38 times in all. In his prime he was arguably the best putter in the game but his highest position in the world rankings was third. He spent 275 weeks in the top 10.

What about some other notables...

Payne Stewart

Stewart was one of the most popular and outgoing golfers of his generation. He was also one of the finest. Stewart saved his best form for the US Open, which he won in 1991 and 1999. He also won the US PGA Championship in 1989 and twice finished runner-up at The Open. During the 1999 Ryder Cup at Brookline he reacted to partisan American crowds turning on Colin Montgomerie by conceding his singles match. It was an extraordinary act of sportsmanship. Shortly afterwards he died in a plane crash. Stewart spent 250 weeks in the top 10, reaching a high of third.

Curtis Strange

The American was a prolific winner on the PGA Tour, claiming 17 titles. He won the US Open in 1988 and famously successfully defended his title the following year - a rare feat indeed. In each of 1985, 1987 and 1988 he won three times. His victory at the 1989 US Open was his last one. Strange spent 223 weeks in the top 10, with a best of third.

Sandy Lyle

Lyle beat Nick Faldo to both The Masters and The Open. But the fell to earth all too quickly. The Scot still managed 166 weeks in the top 10, and his highest position was second. If only he hadn’t decided that he needed to change a swing that won him two majors, who knows what he might have achieved in the game?

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