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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.

It so happened that golf superagent Mark McCormack learned of Greer’s system and expressed interest. McCormack, through his mega-agency International Management Group (agents to Woods, Arnold Palmer and nearly all of golf’s greats at some time), had a business association with the British Open at a time when the Royal and Ancient Golf Club was looking for a new way to issue exemptions to players worldwide, and it wanted some sort of a ranking system. Greer’s hobby became the basis for what is now the Official World Golf Ranking. Greer’s system relied heavily on a player’s performance in the major championships and the best events on the home tours.

Much has been made of Europeans occupying the top three spots in the world rankings for most of 2011, with Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy having just recently moved into third place after winning the U.S. Open. But you might be surprised to know that when the Sony Ranking was issued on April 6, 1986—Greer’s system under the auspices of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club and IMG—Germany’s Bernhard Langer was No. 1, Spain’s Seve Ballesteros was No. 2 and Scotland’s Sandy Lyle was No. 3. Tom Watson at No. 4 was the top-rated American.

But now that Luke Donald without a major, Lee Westwood without a major and Martin Kaymer with one major have held the No. 1 ranking in the past year, the debate is on about who “deserves” to be No. 1. That debate largely ignores the math involved, the very basis for the rankings. The debate is much more about perception than it is about mathematics.

“Is Lee Westwood or Rory McIlroy playing better than Dustin Johnson or Jim Furyk?” says Davis Love by way of rhetorical question. “We don’t really know for sure because they don’t play in the same tournaments all that much. It’s not like NASCAR where everybody races against each other the same week on the same racetrack. Players need to play their own tours, so there are lots of times they aren’t together, and the ranking system is an attempt to account for that.

“It’s not a perfect system. Everybody has complained about it for years, but we need some sort of a system. I was on the PGA Tour board four times and I never heard anyone propose something that would totally fix it.”

Well, does it actually need fixing? When Tiger Woods dominated from the summit of the golf rankings no one questioned why he was there, no one did the math. With 14 major championships among his 71 PGA Tour victories and another 12 international wins, with more than $94 million in career earnings, it is unlikely that any golf fan, or touring pro, ever looked at the numbers, or how they were arrived at. He was The One, that’s all we had know.

“When Tiger was winning all those major championships, and winning all the best kinds of tournaments, he amassed an enormous amount of points,” says Greer, the man who started it all. “The rankings are very heavily weighted to the major championships and to tournaments that have very strong fields, and those were the tournaments that he was winning. The system certainly did its job with Tiger, as it would have to.

“But I think the system is doing its job just fine now. With Tiger out of form, you don’t have players winning multiple majors, or a half dozen big tournaments a year. You’ve got players like Lee Westwood who have finished very highly in the majors without winning them, and getting a lot of points for those finishes. Players like Kaymer, Charl Schwartzel and Graeme McDowell have benefited greatly from winning majors. The system is designed so that if you win a major championship, you will be in the top 50, and if you win two you will be in the top 10. Luke Donald hasn’t been a big winner, but this year he has won two very top-rated events and has been consistently in the top 10, and he has been rewarded for that.” Darren Clarke’s British Open win in July shows how it works; he jumped from 111th to 30th with the victory.

Justin Rose, an Englishman, now plays most of his golf as a member of the PGA Tour. But he’s quite convinced that the system is working and that what he perceived as a big bias toward the PGA Tour has been corrected. (PGA Tour events do consistently rank higher than other events.)

“I think maybe 10 years ago there was a big bias toward world-ranking points here [PGA Tour] versus Europe,” says Rose. “And now it’s a little bit self-perpetuating in terms of the more points they play for back home. In some ways it is easier to sustain that [No. 1] position. Luke, his consistency is incredible. Thoroughly deserves to be world No. 1.”

Even Donald, who is a member of the PGA Tour, himself is a little dizzied to have risen to No. 1.

“It’s something I’ve never really thought about,” Donald says. “I think as a kid you dream about winning majors and winning tournaments, but for me I always kept an eye out on the world rankings. I had an interest in it, but I suppose for the bulk of my career Tiger was so far ahead that it never really crept into my mind. But in the last year or so there has been more of an upheaval in the rankings and there’s been a lot of movement, so I knew the opportunity was there.”

When asked if he feels like he is No. 1, Donald replies, “I do, I do.”  He continues, “I think the way the world rankings are, consistency is very highly weighted. If you can keep playing well week in and week out, keep earning those points, then you’re going to climb in the world rankings, and I don’t think there’s anybody been more consistent in the last nine months than me.”

Nick Faldo, now the lead commentator for CBS golf broadcasts, took over the No. 1 spot in the world rankings in July of 1992 after his final British Open victory, and held it for 81 weeks. He thinks that Donald has done his sums correctly. “Luke Donald was talked about the whole season, how consistent he was, how consistent he was playing at a high level and he was comfortable when he became No. 1,” says Faldo. “Lee Westwood, for all his great play in 2010, backed into the No. 1 position when Tiger fell off. He was in a supermarket or something when he became No. 1.

“You know, I never thought about being No. 1 in the first stage of my career. Until the system really got going, probably in my mind around 1990, I didn’t think about it. But when it did really get going, I made it an obsession to become world No. 1.”
Phil Mickelson hasn’t let it be known that he has an obsession to become world No.1, but he certainly is the greatest player never to hold that rank. His long and highly successful career has been spent almost entirely in the shadow of Tiger Woods. Mickelson has played Avis to Woods’ Hertz for more than a decade, sitting in second place but unable to draft his way to the front.

As Woods’ form deteriorated, starting with his injury absence from the game for knee surgery following his 2008 U.S. Open win, the quadruple bogey of his personal life in 2009 and continued injury problems though 2010 into 2011, Mickelson was in a position to take over the No. 1 ranking no less than 12 times. Sometimes he was just a win away from doing it, other times he needed just a high finish in a major. His own form deteriorated toward the end of the 2010 season, allowing Westwood, Kaymer and Donald to swoop past him.

“We were talking the other day. Phil Mickelson has never been No. 1 in the world,” says Couples. “I think that’s incredible to me. But [he was] going up against Tiger Woods, and even when Tiger didn’t have those crazy years, Vijay was having them, and Vijay was phenomenal.”

If you are phenomenal, you are No. 1. But if you are phenomenally consistent, and no one else is a phenomenal winner, you are also No. 1. That’s how it has worked out for Luke Donald and for Westwood and for Kaymer. The No. 1 ranking is earned, not bestowed. And now Rory McIlroy, with an overarching U.S. Open win under his belt, is nearing the summit as his psyche and body adapt to the thin air at the game’s highest altitude.

But while there is debate about No. 1, the world rankings have a very practical aspect to players and to tournaments. As Graeme McDowell puts it: “It’s about No. 50.”

Those players ranked within the top 50 in the world get exemptions into the world’s best tournaments. The Masters, U.S. and British Opens use the top-50 mark for exemptions. The World Championship Golf events use the world rankings to determine their fields. A player in the top 50, therefore, gets to play in the highest-rated tournaments with the highest number of points available, therefore allowing him to milk the cash cow more frequently than lower-ranked players.

It is the top 50 rankings that are debated by the professional players far more than who is, or should be, No. 1. (Though strangely, not one player interviewed on the subject at Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament this June said he set his schedule in order to maximize his world-ranking points.)

Let’s just say that when it comes to world-ranking points, there are some sticking points.
One, many players question the amount of points accumulated for tournaments on the lesser tours in South Africa, Asia and South America.

Two, since the ranking of players in a tournament helps determine that tournament’s point value, players are skeptical of the added value of a tournament when Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson or any other “celebrity player” plays in an event in Dubai or Singapore or Australia because of a hefty appearance fee.

Three, they also question whether an event that doesn’t have official status with any tour should get any points at all, such as Tiger Woods’ Chevron World Challenge or the Nedbank Challenge in South Africa. Those two small-field events do receive some ranking status, and to do so must base their entries on the world rankings and not invitations.
David Duval points out something else he considers a “flaw.”

“You have very young players who haven’t played in 50 pro tour events making it into the top 50,” says Duval. “I mean, they are good players, but do they deserve to be in the top 50 as opposed to somebody who has played out here for 10 years?”


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