Would golfers rather be a World No.1 or a Major champion?

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In her exclusive Today’s Golfer Column, LET star Meghan MacLaren discusses why winning a Major isn’t necessarily the best barometer of success.

From the moment I started taking my future in golf seriously, the ultimate, overarching goal has always been to be the best player in the world.

Hopefully, it goes without saying that winning a Major would be a dream, but reaching the top of your profession – that has always been the one thing that gets me out of bed in the morning. That’s the thing that keeps me at the golf club when my hands are so cold I think they might be stuck to my grip. That’s the thing that makes me keep attempting the drill long after I said this go would be my last; and the thing that stopped me from going out on Friday nights in Miami before college practice on a Saturday morning. Those solitary moments of doing the work when nobody else knows it is being done – particularly towards the end of my amateur career and beginning of my professional one – that was the vision that fuelled me.

Golf at the highest level is a game of unseen sacrifice.

There was (and still is) something about reaching the pinnacle of the game that somehow feels more real than winning a Major. It feels somehow closer to what golf is, in all its complexity. Winning any tournament requires an immense skillset, and winning a Major requires an even more defined one – we all know why they hold so much prestige.

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Yet I think becoming World No.1 represents something closer to what so many of us get hooked on the game for.
It represents the addiction; the reason we come back even when we tell ourselves it’s only going to cause us suffering. That desperate, unattainable quest for something close to mastery. Becoming the best golfer in the world inarguably shows that you have got closer to mastery than anyone else.

The current women's World No.1, Jin Young Ko.

Mastery is perhaps what all sports are about. Maybe some play and compete purely for the competitive buzz, but golf has always held the most fascination with me for its tantalising elusiveness. Its constant ebb and flow mean there is never a rest, never true satisfaction. Just when you think you’ve figured something out, it disappears again; mocking you for daring to think that golf didn’t know better than you. Being World No.1 might not mean you’ve ‘beaten’ golf, but it means you’ve got closer than anyone else. I can’t imagine anything more satisfying than that in this sport.

Almost every professional golfer shows flashes of mastery. It is what makes the sport simultaneously so frustrating and enticing. We see our potential and we wonder why it doesn’t stay. Doing things well – pulling difficult shots off, hitting a specific shot in a tournament that you’ve worked on in practice, catching your negative self-talk before it’s too late, self-correcting a swing fault, walking in a snaking 15-footer – they and a million other things give us glimpses of what our best might be like. And that holds true for golfers of every level.

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Sometimes we stumble into it with accidental freedom, sometimes we grind out the path that leads us there. But we can rarely retrace our steps. That’s why I have so much respect for consistency streaks in our game, even if they are celebrated less than wins. And despite all of the above, I think our game as a whole values Majors more than anything else. They are the markers of a career. 

The players who reach World No.1 without winning a Major will always wear that as a shadow; a question mark. The players who win solitary Majors are probably never asked or questioned about why they didn’t reach number one. But would Lee Westwood trade in his entire career for a single Major? I honestly don’t know.

Lee Westwood ended Tiger's reign as World No.1 but currently has no Major to his name.

Maybe too, as a player, there is something about dealing with things in the moment that holds the most power. Rankings reflect passages of time, but Majors or even individual tournaments hold emotion. They hold feeling. Their specificity is perhaps the most real part of this game, despite what ‘vision’ may drive the decisions and habits you create.

The highlights reel will always be individual moments. Perhaps as golf fans – and as in human nature – we inherently understand the value of that. After all, life is about experiences; about feeling and moments of celebration. Personally, I guess I just feel privileged to get to do so much of that through golf.

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