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Becoming No. 1

The Official World Golf Ranking is a mysterious mix of points and mathematical formulas used to determine the world’s best golfer
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Saturday Night Live: How it Shapes Our Politics & Culture, September/October 2011

Who’s the No. 1 golfer in the world?

For the past decade there was no question: Tiger Woods. When Woods first ascended to the top of the Official World Golf Ranking in June of 1997, there was little question that he was the best player in the world. Other players stuck their nose in front of him briefly, most notably Vijay Singh—but until Woods lost that No. 1 ranking to Lee Westwood at the end of October 2010 he had held the top spot an astonishing total of 623 weeks, winning 14 major championships along the way.

We didn’t need the Official World Golf Ranking to know that Woods was No. 1. He was just The One. We didn’t need to know the amount of ranking points he accumulated or how they were accumulated. We didn’t need the math. We had his myth, and that was all that was necessary.

But when his personal life and his body started to crumble, when his myth became unraveled, that’s where the math kicked in. Now, likely for the first time since the inception of world rankings in April of 1986, there is debate over who should be No. 1, who “deserves” to be No. 1.

“Greg Norman was No. 1 for a long time, but he didn’t do anything like Tiger Woods,” says Fred Couples, himself a No. 1 in the 1992 season. “Tiger hasn’t changed his game, but he’s let somebody else become No. 1 because he has struggled...and I think that it’s a good thing for golf.”

It certainly is a hot topic for debate. Englishman Lee Westwood, without a major championship title but with a résumé of high finishes in golf’s best events, took over the top spot from Woods during a week that he didn’t play. Woods wasn’t playing either, and because under the two-year rolling ranking system (see sidebar, page 77) Woods lost points that week and Westwood ascended to the top while at home in England. Westwood was then supplanted in February of this year by Martin Kaymer, the young German star who had won the 2010 PGA Championship. Westwood rose back to the top again in April, then was surpassed at the end of May by fellow Brit Luke Donald, who beat him in a play-off for the BMW PGA Championship, one of the European Tour’s top events.

“When Tiger was winning every other week it was obvious who was No. 1,” says Davis Love III. “But now you can have changes every other week and it’s not so obvious. I think everyone wants to know who is No. 1. It’s fun to talk about, and lately there’s been a lot to talk about.”

That’s because the myth has been replaced by the math. The One isn’t No. 1 anymore.

So where did this math come from anyway, this Official World Golf Ranking?

Tony Greer is an English civil engineer who was a keen sportsman and mathematician. He had been working with golf statistics for various tournaments in England in the early ’80s. Greer developed a system to unify the golf world, to mathematically assess and thus rank the world’s players. The four major championships (the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship) tended to be the only tournaments in which the world’s best players competed against each other. Greer developed a system to rank tournaments on the PGA Tour, European Tour and some of the smaller tours worldwide based on the Top 200 players in the field that week, then award players points based on their finishes in those events.

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