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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

(continued from page 1)

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.”

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