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All in the Rankings

Ever wondered why pro golf rankings are so important? Dermot Gilleece explains all

Posted Jan 24, 2012 by Dermot Gilleece

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With many of the world’s top players assembled in Abu Dhabi this week, there’s going to be plenty of ranking points at stake. And that’s a particularly crucial consideration for the game’s leading players who are looking towards the Ryder Cup at Medinah in September.

It is widely acknowledged that qualification, especially for the European line-up, is nigh impossible without access to the Major championships and the WGC events.  So those aspirants hovering around 100th in the World Ranking, will more than likely be planning a family holiday for that time.

Ten years ago, The United States were holders of the Ryder Cup and it’s no coincidence that they happened to be dominating the rankings at that time.  Granted, their nine in the top-20 wasn’t all that much greater than their current representation of seven, but the difference at the top was stark.  Where Americans Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and David Duval were one, two and three in the world at the beginning of 2002, those positions are currently held by Luke Donald of England, Lee Westwood of England and Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland.  In fact the top American is Steve Stricker at number five and as part of this change, the world number-one position has twice been filled by players yet to win a Major championship.

The ranking’s volatility over that period is illustrated perfectly by Padraig Harrington who, from world number three in August 2008, has tumbled to a current 88th.  And he won’t take much comfort from the fact that the once peerless Woods, is a relatively humble 25th.

World ranking is one of golf’s great conundrums, which only the more erudite of practitioners are believed to fully understand.  It was launched by the International Management Group (IMG) in 1986, when reigning Open champion, Greg Norman, ended the year as the world’s first number one. Prior to that, a sort of IMG in-house arrangement dated back to 1968 when the world’s first top-10 players, in order, were: 1 Jack Nicklaus; 2 Arnold Palmer; 3 Billy Casper; 4 Gary Player; 5 Bob Charles; 6 Julius Boros; 7 Neil Coles; 8 Peter Thomson; 9 Frank Beard; 10 Kel Nagle.

As it happened, Nicklaus was number-one for 10 straight years; Tom Watson succeeded him from 1978 to 1982 and Seve Ballesteros then took over for three years until the official rankings came into being.  Though the unbroken run by the Bear could be viewed as somewhat arbitrary, it is still interesting in the context of the later supremacy of Woods, who had a possible run of 12 years at the top, from 1998 to 2009, broken by Vijay Singh in 2004. Which meant Woods had a best sequence of only six straight years at number one.             

In the immediate aftermath of Harrington’s third Major triumph in the PGA Championship in August 2008, the world’s top-10 were: 1 Woods; 2  Mickelson; 3 Harrington; 4 Sergio Garcia; 5 Singh; 6 Henrik Stenson; 7 Ernie Els; 8 Stewart Cink; 9 Geoff Ogilvy; 10 Stricker.  By the end of that year, Garcia had moved to number two, with Mickelson and Harrington slipping out to three and four. And further down the order, positions from six to 10 were filled by Robert Karlsson, Camillo Villegas, Stenson, Els and Westwood.

That season marked Westwood’s return to prominence as an end-of-year third in the European Order of Merit, his highest placing since capturing the Merit title in 2000.  Now, in less than 33 months, he, Mickelson and Stricker are the only survivors in the current top-10 of: 1 Donald; 2 Westwood; 3 McIlroy; 4 Martin Kaymer; 5 Stricker; 6 Webb Simpson; 7 Adam Scott; 8 Charl Schwartzel, 9 Dustin Johnson; 10 Jason Day.

How does the system work?  So as to avert an immediate dash for the drinks cabinet, I will attempt a seriously simplified version.  For a start, the official World Golf Ranking is endorsed by the four Major championships and the six leading professional tours - US PGA TOUR, European Tour, Japan Tour, PGA Tour of Australasia, Sunshine Tour of South Africa and Asian Tour and is updated every Monday.

Ranking points are also awarded on the Canadian, OneAsia, South American (TLA), Korean, Nationwide and European Challenge Tours. These are generally related to the strength of the field based on the number and ranking of the Top-200 World Ranked players and the Top-30 of the Home Tour players in the respective tournaments. The four Major Championships, however, along with the Players Championship in the US, are rated separately as “higher quality events.” Flagship events on the other tours are accorded similar status.

Points are accumulated over a two-year rolling period with those awarded for each event being maintained for a 13-week period to place additional emphasis on recent performances. Ranking points are then reduced in equal decrements for the remaining 91 weeks of the two year ranking period. Each player is then ranked according to his average points per tournament, which is determined by dividing his total number of points by the tournaments he has played over that two-year period.

Finally, there is a minimum divisor of 40 tournaments over the two year ranking period and a maximum divisor of a player’s last 56 events (54 from June 26 2011). Points are reduced by 25% for tournaments curtailed to 36 holes because of inclement weather or other reasons.  Got it?  I thought not.

- Dermot Gilleece

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