Lee Westwood reclaims No. 1 ranking

For the previous five years and most of the past decade, discussions about the No. 1 player in the world were limited to Tiger Woods and how big his lead was over everyone else.

Other than a relative blip when Vijay Singh surged to the top during an impressive run of 40-something golf in 2004-05, Woods' clutch on the No. 1 spot was often so great that there was more distance between him and No. 2 than there was between No. 2 and No. 100.

It made for a lot of yawns, certainly. The Official World Golf Ranking had a purpose for filling out major championship fields, but there was not much question about the player ruling the game.

Change now seems fast and furious atop the rankings. It's changed only three times now since Woods relinquished his No. 1 ranking last October, but compared to the previous decade, three changes in six months is dizzying.

First it was Lee Westwood. Then it was Martin Kaymer. And now it is Westwood again, although he couldn't be sure until fellow Englishman Luke Donald failed to win the Heritage on Sunday in South Carolina.

The only negative to the entire deal was that the battling Brits could not do so in the same tournament, head to head, with No. 1 at stake by winning.

Westwood, who celebrated his 38th birthday Sunday, did his work 10,000 miles away in Jakarta at the Indonesian Masters.

Although he was ranked a spot ahead of Donald behind the former No. 1 Kaymer, Westwood was forced to wait on Donald, who was playing for far more rankings points on the PGA Tour than the Asian Tour event was offering. So Westwood would move to No. 1 only if Donald didn't win; a Donald victory meant he would be No. 1.

At least this time it was about winning.

When Westwood took over the top spot from Woods on Halloween, he was not even playing. Woods had lost so many ranking points due to his first winless season as a pro that it was inevitable that someone would surpass him.

For most of 2010, that someone seemed likely to be Phil Mickelson, who was poised to move to No. 1 for the first time in his career through some scenario in every tournament following his Masters victory. Never happened.

Instead, Westwood -- despite just one victory last year and a long stretch off due to a calf injury -- became No. 1.

He held it until the WGC-Accenture Match Play in February, where Germany's Kaymer, winner of last year's PGA Championship, became No. 1. He did so by advancing to the final of the Match Play -- where he was then defeated by Donald.

Had Donald ascended to No. 1, doubters surely would have surfaced. His victory at the Match Play was his first on the PGA Tour in five years and one of just three overall. He won on the European Tour last year and starred for the European Ryder Cup team but his résumé, big on consistency and high finishes, has been sorely lacking in victories.

And of course there is no major championship hardware, just as there has yet to be for Westwood -- which has critics wondering how either player could be No. 1.

A look at the list of No. 1 players throughout the history of the ranking system that dates to 1986 shows that none of the 14 other than Westwood failed to win a major.

It should be pointed out that Fred Couples and David Duval got to No. 1 before each won a major championship. And that they are two of just four Americans, along with Tom Lehman and Woods, to be ranked No. 1.

In that regard, Sunday was a no-lose day for England. It was going to be either Westwood or Donald, two of five Englishmen ranked among the top 25 in the world. Throw in Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, Martin Laird of Scotland, and the United Kingdom is looking pretty good right about now.

And depending on how things transpire over the next several weeks and months, perhaps it will be one of them who boasts of being No. 1 -- until somebody else comes along to knock him off.

Say what you want about the rankings -- and plenty negative has been said -- but it is clear that it would be unwise for Westwood -- or anyone -- to get comfortable in that No. 1 spot.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.