Nearly five years ago, when Luke Donald first announced his ambition to one day sit atop the world rankings, he was roundly mocked as callow, presumptuous, even delusional. After all, this was a player whose only real brush with greatness, in the final group of the 2006 PGA Championship at Medinah, had left him looking thoroughly outclassed.
His playing partner on that day, Tiger Woods, looked unassailable at the summit of the world rankings, and as he coasted to his twelfth major championship, it appeared genuinely inconceivable that anyone, let alone the unassuming Englishman, could overtake him.
Well, who’s laughing now?
With yesterday’s play-off victory over Lee Westwood at the BMW PGA Championship, Europe’s flagship event, Donald succeeded in leap-frogging his opponent in the world rankings and becoming only the third Englishman (after Westwood himself and Nick Faldo) to merit the honour of being called World Number One.
While Tiger Woods has been forced to witness the deterioration of his game in the wake of a very public sex scandal, divorce, allegations of steroid abuse and injury, Donald has succeeded, through sheer diligence, in elevating his game to the standard of art form.
There will undoubtedly be those who claim that he’s somehow undeserving of his most recent accolade; he hasn’t won a major, or simply hasn’t contended enough over the course of his career. But to raise such concerns is to misinterpret the very purpose of the world rankings.
They’re not a barometer of greatness, a statistical means of defining the champion’s killer instinct, but a gauge by which we can determine the world’s most consistent golfers. The Tiger Era offered us a convenient overlap between the two, accustoming us to the idea that they should be somehow interchangeable, that mathematical formulae could lay bare the alchemy of sporting greatness.
That’s not the case, however, nor has it ever been. Donald’s success, like Westwood’s before him, shouldn’t be resented just because greatness, as yet, lies beyond his reach.