During its 36-year existence, the Official World Golf Ranking formula has been altered more frequently than a Donald Trump alibi but, unlike the latter, seems finally to have reached a point where it is both authentic and defensible.
The latest iteration debuted this week, the product of a four-year review. The math isn’t much easier to grasp for most of us, but the principle underpinning it is this — a tournament’s available ranking points be determined by one factor, the quality of its competitors. Gone are the arbitrary devices used by global golf circuits to inflate their importance and prop up events that had long since lost luster. Going forward, the ranking will no longer be hostage to the marketing and machinations of its member tours.
The old system was as compromised as a Russian election when Comrade Vlad is on the ballot. The number of ranking points a tournament offered its champion was based on its strength of field, but if a field was weak then each member tour — there are 23 — had a pre-determined “minimum” number of points it could award the winner instead. Every time a tour relied upon minimums to cover for an anemic field, the tournament in question was overvalued and bias was injected into the ranking. And every tour was guilty.
The PGA Tour used its assigned minimum points in opposite-field events, or in about 10-12% of its schedule. The DP World Tour did so in about half of its events, while other tours did it almost every time they played. The distortions didn’t end there. Tours could also declare a “flagship” tournament, bestowing status on an event that often inflated its value far beyond the quality of the field it attracted. The entire process was as much politics as statistics.
In the new system, every player is assigned a Strokes Gained World Rating based on two years of scores. That rating determines how many points he contributes to an event, and the total of all competitors’ points is what the field plays for. The more elite players who enter, the more points they compete for. Crucially, it’s all tour agnostic — no contrived minimums, no backroom politicking, nothing but the caliber of entrants determines the ranking value of a tournament. There will inevitably be cries from some that their home tour is now undervalued, but in reality, their tour was previously artificially overvalued.
“With these changes, players and tournaments in different parts of the world can be compared with a higher degree of accuracy than before,” said Mark Broadie, a professor at Columbia Business School and the creator of Strokes Gained metrics, who designed the new rankings algorithm.
Alert readers will have noticed that the new system poses a problem for players signed to LIV Golf, which doesn’t yet offer ranking points for its schedule. The prior system wasn’t doing them any favors either, but since Judge Beth Labson Freeman of California’s Ninth District decided they can’t compete where the most points are available — on the PGA Tour — they’ll have to play lesser circuits to maintain their world rankings, especially if they’re reliant upon that rank to access major championships. And even doing that won’t save them.
A smattering of LIV guys joining an otherwise feeble field on, say, the Asian Tour won’t mean a lot more ranking points are available because the quality of who they’re competing against matters now, and there are no discretionary ways for tours to inflate the ranking value of tournaments. The new system offers no hiding place, which should ensure we don’t have another Jumbo Ozaki situation. Ozaki was granted the latitude of a deity on the Japan Tour and seldom left it (the only one of his 119 credited wins earned elsewhere was the 1972 New Zealand PGA). His results at home kept Ozaki ranked in the world’s top 10 until 1998, well beyond his 50th birthday and almost a decade distant from the last of his three career top 10 finishes in majors.
In July, LIV Golf submitted an application to be accorded ranking points. OWGR member tours must be compliant with all governing rules for one year before such status can be granted, but LIV still hasn’t met at least a half-dozen of the necessary requirements. Despite that, LIV’s CEO, Greg Norman, demanded approval just days after filing the application and began alleging conspiracies against his outfit. It was akin to telephoning the IRS a few days after filing your taxes to demand a refund that isn’t due. Still, the extraordinary combination of grievance and entitlement helps explain the warm embrace of LIV at Trump Bedminster a few weeks ago.
Judge Freeman’s decision will only increase LIV’s desperation for ranking points that might keep more of its players eligible for major championships. A lawsuit on that front seems likely as Greg and his bot-fueled conspiracy theorists — the GAGA crowd — claim collusion between every entity in golf to suppress the league, despite the OWGR changes predating the creation of LIV.
Projections of how LIV’s players will fare in the world ranking without access to PGA Tour events — and without competing against quality opponents on other tours — are grim. By the end of the year, most will have dropped outside the top 50. By next spring, when deadlines loom for guys to be ranked high enough to get into majors, almost all of them will be on the wrong side of the cut line. Only those who meet other eligibility criteria are likely to make it.
This could render moot the feverish speculation about how the major championships will handle LIV. All they may need to do is wait. Many players who signed with LIV knew rankings were crucial if they were to remain eligible for the game’s most important events, and they had a one-year notice period before the new system took effect. Their mistake, if they even see it as such, was not born of a lack of information. It came from believing Norman when he insisted that the PGA Tour had no right to suspend them and prevent a free ride on its ranking points.
History shows that little good comes from hitching one’s fortunes to a flaxen-haired narcissist who thinks the rules just don’t apply to him.