Tiger Woods' cubs Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm and Scottie Scheffler roaring into 2023

As Scottie Scheffler edged Rory McIlroy from the top of the world rankings, it was easy to conclude that the pinnacle of men's professional golf has become rarefied air suitable only for the game's biggest beasts.

It has been an astonishing period dominated by an exclusive few. Gone are the days, it seems, when a host of lesser lights might occupy the upper echelons of leaderboards.

To stand in those positions in the current era you have to be among the very best. In other words, an exclusive club where it helps if your name is Scheffler, McIlroy or Jon Rahm.

BBC reports Scheffler's successful title defence at the elevated $20m (£16.5m) WM Phoenix Open occurred during a run since last October where the American has not finished worse than 11th.

"I hadn't won since the Masters," Scheffler acknowledged after closing with a superb 65 to finish two clear off the field.

"I've given myself a decent chance a few times, so it's definitely a lot of fun to get this one done, especially in the fashion that I did it."

The top six included Rahm, Justin Thomas, Jason Day and Jordan Spieth - who all know how it feels to lead world rankings.

And now the Masters champion is back to enjoy his 31st week as top dog after dropping only two shots in 72 holes. He later revealed the champion mentality that has driven him to the top.

"I've always been really competitive and I don't like making bogeys," he said.

"Any time I hit a bad shot it's all about how you respond because bad shots are going to come.

"You're not going to play 72 holes of perfect golf. A lot of it is how you respond. I felt like I did a really good job of that this week and I'm just hoping to build on it going forward."

And, as he admitted, his recent record does include a number of near misses. Indeed, it has been relatively modest compared with the runs that have been enjoyed by Rahm and McIlroy.

The European Ryder Cup team-mates have been pretty much permanent fixtures on leaderboards ever since McIlroy beat Scheffler and won the Tour Championship last August.

In that period Rahm has not finished outside the top eight in any tournament, winning four of them. McIlroy faltered in Phoenix, his first US event of the year, finishing joint 32nd but the Northern Irishman has otherwise been immaculate.

Apart from last week, in the same spell he has been top four at every event, winning three, including the Dubai Desert Classic last month in his only other appearance so far this year.

The level of consistency is reminiscent of Tiger Woods at his best, and something else the 26-year-old Scheffler, 33-year-old McIlroy and 28-year-old Rahm share in common is that they all grew up idolising the 15-times major champion.

At their best they all play in his indomitable fashion and it is no coincidence. The era we are currently enjoying was spawned by the Woods revolution of the nineties and noughties.

It turned so many players from mere golfers to serious athletes who know a champion's killer instinct is vital. Here we now have three prime examples at the vanguard of the sport.

So it is appropriate the next PGA Tour stop, the Genesis Invitational, is promoted by the 47-year-old Woods. And he will be competing for the first time since missing the cut at The Open at St Andrews last July.

Even with a seriously damaged right foot, dodgy back and myriad of past surgeries, Tiger - the joint record 82-time winner on the American circuit - is still golf's biggest beast for his influence on the game.

"I know he's going to keep doing everything he can to still try to win more tournaments," Rahm said last week. "Possibly get that 83rd win. Hopefully, obviously in his mind a major.

"So it's a true honour for all of us. Any time Tiger can be present on the golf course playing makes the tournament even better. So I'm hoping he can play comfortably and I'm hoping he can play well."

But, let's be realistic.

Woods contending in the current era is not going to happen, his cubs are far too strong.

This week's Los Angeles event is another of the elevated tournaments (average prize fund $20m). They are a concept brokered by Woods and McIlroy last year and have been brought in to counter the lucrative threat of LIV Golf.

Arguably the only one of the Saudi Arabian-funded circuit's recruits capable of consistently living with the top trio is current world number four and Open champion Cameron Smith.

It is a shame he cannot be part of the mix as the 2023 season starts to lift off. He will also miss defending the PGA Tour's flagship Players Championship at Sawgrass next month.

How strong is the Australian's game now he is playing 54-hole shotgun starts? It is impossible to know.

During the LIV close season he has won the Australian PGA but was joint 47th at the Australian Open. He missed the cut at the recent Saudi International on the Asian Tour.

Smith will be part of the story at the Masters in April and what an enticing prospect that looks. But LIV looks much slighter fare compared with the heavyweight quality currently on offer on the PGA Tour.

Things are going to form right now. If that continues it is a fair bet that the likes of Scheffler, McIlroy and Rahm will be better equipped to breathe that crucial competitive fire in the year's first major at Augusta National.