View from the top – The 24 world No 1 golfers

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Spanish golfer Jon Rahm tees off
  • Post published:October 12, 2021

Since the men’s World Ranking was officially launched in 1986, there have been only 24 world No 1 golfers, writes BRENDAN BARRATT. Predictably, Tiger Woods heads up the list, having held top spot for 683 weeks, but who else has been top dog?

1. Bernhard Langer
The first player to top the World Ranking when sports agent Mark McCormack and the R&A devised their worldwide ranking system was none other than the reigning Masters champion Langer. The first ranking had a European feel to things, with the German followed by Spain’s Seve Ballesteros and Scot Sandy Lyle. Tom Watson, Mark O’Meara and Greg Norman made up the top six.

2. Seve Ballesteros
Langer’s time at the top was short-lived, however, as he was replaced after three weeks by Ballesteros. The Spaniard spent a cumulative 61 weeks as the world’s top-ranked player, although his inconsistency showed up as he was never really able to hold on to the position for any length of time, giving it up on five occasions to Greg Norman.

3. Greg Norman
The Great White Shark dominated the World Ranking for a decade, racking up no fewer than 331 weeks as No 1 – a feat few expected to be beaten. While he was comfortably the best player in the world over this time, he did not translate his ranking success into Major victories, picking up just two Open Championships during this time.

4. Nick Faldo
Faldo’s first stint at No 1 came in late 1990, after a stellar year where the Englishman claimed The Masters and The Open Championship. His longest reign came in 1992, after his win at The Open at Muirfield. From there, Faldo spent an impressive 81 consecutive weeks as the top-ranked player.

5. Ian Woosnam
Woosie claimed the 1991 Masters amid a golden year where he won six events across the globe. The Welshman spent 50 straight weeks as the world No 1, continuing the European domination of the World Ranking.

6. Fred Couples
Couples emerged as the first American to rise to the No 1 player in the world when he won the 1992 Nestle Invitational. Although he lost his position to Faldo a week later, Couples reclaimed the No 1 spot with his Masters win another week later.

7. Nick Price
It comes as little surprise that Price ascended to the top of the ranking after his spectacular 1994 season, where he won seven times, including The Open and The PGA Championship. Price remained on top for 44 weeks, before relinquishing his spot to Norman.

8. Tom Lehman
Lehman holds the record for the shortest time at the top of the World Ranking – just one solitary week in April 1997. The previous year the American had won The Open and The Tour Championship and finished runner-up at the US Open, so when he claimed a share of fourth at the RBC Heritage, the points bumped him above Norman and into first.

9. Tiger Woods
It took Woods less than a year after turning professional to become the world No 1 golfer, in June 1997. During this time he won three PGA Tour events, including The Masters by an incredible 12 shots. Although he would only hold on to the No 1 ranking for one week, losing it to Ernie Els, Woods would ultimately hold the ranking for over 13 years, including a streak of 281 consecutive weeks from June 2005 to October 2010.

10. Ernie Els
In June 1997, Els won his second US Open title and, in doing so, claimed the world No 1 ranking from Woods. Els usurped Woods three times during his career, a feat matched only by Vijay Singh. Although Els would only spend nine weeks at the top, there’s a feeling his record should be marked with an asterisk, given it came during the peak of Woods’ career.

11. David Duval
Duval spent 15 weeks at the summit of the World Ranking in 1999, capping off a stunning streak where the American won 11 PGA Tour events in three years, including a final-round 59 to win the 1999 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. He also teamed up with Woods to win the World Cup in 2000 and the following year, he won his only Major title, the 2001 Open Championship.

12. Vijay Singh
Another of the select few to dethrone Woods during the peak of his powers, Singh claimed the top spot in September 2004. It took an extraordinary set of results for the Fijian to get there, however, with four PGA Tour wins in 2003 and nine PGA Tour wins in 2004, including The PGA Championship. In that glorious year, Singh became the first player to surpass $10-million in season earnings on the PGA Tour.

13. Lee Westwood
Westwood capitalised on a poor run of form by Woods – who failed to win a title for the first season of his career – and ended the American’s record 281-week run as the world No 1. In doing so, the Englishman became the first world No 1 without a Major to his name.

14. Martin Kaymer
After a season of four European Tour wins, including the 2010 PGA Championship, Kaymer became the second German world No 1 after he won the 2011 Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.

15. Luke Donald
Donald is another rare golfer who has held the world No 1 position without winning a Major. Such was the measure of the Englishman’s consistency that he managed to hold on to top spot for no fewer than 40 weeks, after multiple wins on both sides of the Atlantic.

16. Rory McIlroy
In March 2012, McIlroy took over the reins as world No 1, after his win at the Honda Classic. The top spot changed hands between McIlroy and Donald a few times, but when the Northern Irishman won The PGA Championship in August 2012, it signalled a run of 32 consecutive weeks at the summit before a resurgent Tiger Woods usurped him.

17. Adam Scott
Despite not teeing it up on the PGA Tour that week, Scott ascended to world No 1 on 18 May 2014, becoming the second Aussie to achieve the feat. He duly won his next tournament, the Crowne Plaza Invitational. After 11 weeks, however, Scott relinquished the top spot to McIlroy.

18. Jordan Spieth
Amid a stunning run where he won The Masters and the US Open back to back, the American rose to world No 1 at the age of 22 years and 20 days. This makes him the second-youngest world No 1 after – you guessed it – Tiger Woods.

19. Jason Day
The Aussie’s star shone brightly towards the tail-end of 2015 as he backed up his PGA Championship win with two FedExCup playoff victories. This saw him shoot to the top of the rankings, a position he held for a total of 51 weeks.

20. Dustin Johnson
Serial PGA Tour winner Johnson seemed destined to reach world No 1, although it took the American a rather long time to get there. DJ claimed top spot after his win at the 2017 Genesis Invitational, but it was a sensational six-month spell preceding this, where he won the US Open, the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and the BMW Championship, that really set him up.

21. Justin Thomas
After an incredibly consistent run where he topped the PGA Tour moneylist for two consecutive seasons, Thomas edged into the No 1 spot in May 2018. The American’s supremacy was short-lived, however, as he only held the position for a total of five weeks.

22. Justin Rose
The Englishman spent five different spells at the top of the World Ranking, yet none lasted longer than eight weeks, as a tight contest between himself, Johnson and Brooks Koepka emerged.

23. Brooks Koepka
Koepka’s back-to-back Majors in 2018 vaulted him to the summit of the World Ranking. After some jostling for the top spot with Rose and Johnson, Koepka’s successful defence of The PGA Championship saw him settle in to the top spot for the next 32 weeks.

24. Jon Rahm
Rahm’s win at the 2020 Memorial saw him become the second Spaniard to top the golf World Ranking. While he held the position for only two weeks, his latest victory, at the 2021 US Open, has seen him rise back to the top of the pile, where it would be no surprise to see Rahm stay for a very long time.


The Women’s World Golf Rankings has been in operation since 2006, with only 15 women having claimed the No 1 spot in that time. Interestingly, the 15 represent nine different countries, with only South Korea (five) and the US (three) having multiple world No 1s. The others hail from Sweden, Mexico, Japan, Taiwan, New Zealand, China and Thailand.

Annika Sorenstam was the first golfer to hold the No 1 position, for a period of 60 weeks, while Mexico’s Lorena Ochoa holds the record for the longest spell at the top, a total of 158 weeks.

The 2021 US Women’s Open champion Nelly Korda is the current world No 1, having taken over from Korea’s Jin Young Ko, who reigned for close to two straight years.

– This article first appeared in the September 2021 issue of Compleat Golfer magazine. The October 2021 issue is on sale now.

Photo: EPA/Mariscal/BackpagePix