Donald, McIlroy face off in long battle for No. 1

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By DOUG FERGUSON, Associated Press

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Golf's world ranking has been more like a game of musical chairs with the most turnover at the top in the 26-year history of the ranking. Rory McIlroy and Luke Donald would like the music to stop playing for good sometime this year, the sooner the better. And both want the same outcome.

"Hopefully," Donald said Wednesday, raising his hand, "it will be me."

McIlroy said the same last week at Quail Hollow, where his playoff loss at the Wells Fargo Championship was enough for him to return to No. 1 for the third time this year.

Donald has a chance to take it back from him this week at The Players Championship, which offers the most world ranking points of any tournament besides the majors. They already have taken turns at the top six times in the last 10 weeks. The last time the No. 1 ranking was even remotely this volatile was in 1997, when it changed seven times in 13 weeks among Greg Norman, Tiger Woods, Tom Lehman and Ernie Els.

The Players Championship is a rare occasion for them to get together. Already four months into the season, McIlroy and Donald have only competed in the same tournament four times: the Abu Dhabi Championship, two World Golf Championships and the Masters.

"I think the last couple of months have not been as exciting because Rory and I really haven't been playing in the same events," Donald said. "I think that will change a little bit, and hopefully there will be some situations coming up in the next few months where we'll be playing in the same tournament and both having a chance to win the tournament."

As for a clear No. 1, Donald said that can only happen by winning a major or multiple tournaments — along with the other players not playing well.

The ranking shuffle speaks to a broader issue in golf. No one ever talked about the world ranking because there was no debate about No. 1.

There was no parity in golf. There was Tiger Woods.

In the 18 months since Woods abandoned his post atop the world ranking, four players have been No. 1: McIlroy, Donald, Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer. In the 30 months since injuries and the scandal in his personal life reduced Woods to an ordinary player, no one has won more than three times in a season on the PGA Tour. That used to be considered a slump for Woods.

"Do I think it's good for the game?" Woods said of the current state of golf. "I liked it when I was up there. That's just me."

The edge going into The Players Championship belongs to McIlroy, the U.S. Open champion, based on consistency. Not only did he win the Honda Classic in early March to reach No. 1 for the first time, he has finished out of the top five only once this year. That was at the Masters, where he was one shot behind going into the weekend, closed with 77-76 and tied for 40th.

Donald, who got off to a slow start this year, has finished out of top 30 in five of his eight tournaments. He showed how determined he is to stay in the picture, though, by winning the Transitions Championship and rallying on the weekend to finish third in New Orleans.

Golf now heads into a time of the year where there will be ample opportunity for someone to establish himself as the clear No. 1, with The Players Championship, Memorial, Europe's flagship event at Wentworth, followed by three majors and a World Golf Championship. If that's not enough, Donald, McIlroy and Westwood — who at No. 3 also has a slim chance to get to No. 1 again this week at Sawgrass — are PGA Tour members and eligible for the FedEx Cup playoffs, which feature four strong fields at the end of the summer.

It all starts to unfold Thursday on a course that fittingly favors no one. The past winners on the Stadium Course at the TPC Sawgrass range from power (Woods, Norman, Phil Mickelson, David Duval) to precision (Tim Clark, Fred Funk, Hal Sutton).

McIlroy and Westwood skipped last year when they belonged to the same management company and were not PGA Tour members.

"It wasn't one of my brightest moments," McIlroy said. "I'm glad to be back."

The Players Championship typically boasts the deepest and strongest field in golf, though it gets just as much notoriety from the course on which it's played, particularly that island green on the par-3 17th that makes for great TV and becomes a smaller target depending on what's at stake.

Missing from the field is Masters champion Bubba Watson, who has pulled out of the last two tournaments so he can bond with the baby boy he and his wife adopted in late March; Dustin Johnson, still recovering from a back injury; and 2011 Masters champion Charl Schwartzel.

Mickelson, a past champion at Sawgrass, is fresh off his induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame. Woods is coming off only the eighth missed cut of his career at Quail Hollow. Even in the best of times, Woods struggled on this golf course. He won in 2001, was the runner-up in 2000, but never seriously contended any of the other 12 times at The Players Championship.

"I've done really well or I haven't," Woods said. "Either I've been right there in contention with a chance or I haven't."

He was speaking of The Players Championship, though he just as easily could have been talking about his season. His win at Bay Hill in March at least got him back into the top 10 in the world, though even if he were to win his next two tournaments, he could not get to No. 1.

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