Keeping Score

Who’s No. 1? It’s not D.J. Viva l’Italia!

Rankings are bogus. And I mean nearly all of them.

Every significant ranking system in sports is flawed, and worse. Politics and subjectivity inevitably wind up being just as important as the numbers-crunching.

College football needed rankings once upon a time because few top teams get a chance to play each other due to conference scheduling. That’s why we used to have bowl games. Now a committee decides which four teams are national-championship worthy – and, by the way, a team’s TV ratings are a factor.

College basketball never has needed rankings. We’ve got the NCAA tournament with its unpredictable brackets. It’s a flawed way to find the best team, a one-and-done playoff, but at least it is settled on the court and not by coaches’ voting.

Golf? I’ve never been a fan of the Official World Golf Ranking. It’s an interesting tool whose shortcomings are many. I particularly dislike golf’s governing bodies using the rankings as a way to determine which players get into tournaments.

Shortcomings? Yes. Results on the Japan Tour are badly overvalued (that’s politics again), results on the Web.com Tour are undervalued, and Champions Tour results aren’t valued at all. That last one may seem irrelevant unless you watched Bernhard Langer finish under par at Carnoustie during the British Open last week. The man can play, but he gets no world-ranking points for his impressive skills.

Shall I continue? Fine. The OWGR awards points over a rolling two-year window. A player’s points from a previous season are discounted by half even though whatever, say, Dustin Johnson did in August of 2016 is completely irrelevant now.

Also, the OWGR awards points based on a player’s finish in a tournament. There is no consideration for the amount of space between finishers. For instance, Tiger Woods’ winning the U.S. Open by 15 shots is accorded exactly the same value as Woods’ winning the Open in a three-way playoff. 

And a player could shoot four straight 54s at Colonial and blow away golf’s scoring records, but if eight of the top 10-ranked players skip that week, that player’s point-total award is dramatically reduced. There is no recognition of relative skill.

The world rankings serve a purpose, which is to define distinct pathways to eligibility. That’s fine because the rules are the same for everyone. But as rankings, they’re too slow to react to players who play poorly and not quite quick enough to reward players who play well.

Golf doesn’t need world rankings because we’ve already got a better system. It’s called The Scoreboard. Here’s how it works: You get the world’s best players together, oh, about four times a year, have a tournament on a great course and keep score. The winner is your new No. 1, the best player in the world, until the next big-deal tournament comes along. Let’s call them major championships. (That’s catchy; I like it.)

So, with apologies to Johnson, your current OWGR No. 1, here’s the history of who is the world’s best player this year: Patrick Reed after the Masters; Brooks Koepka after the U.S. Open; and Francesco Molinari after the British Open.

fdfcb11b-58f9-4aeb-9436-24e61187317d_600x423.jpg
In winning the British Open, Italy’s Francesco Molinari jumps 9 spots in the Official World Golf Ranking, to No. 6. He might merit an even higher ranking.

© GOLFFILE/DAVID LLOYD
In winning the British Open, Italy’s Francesco Molinari jumps 9 spots in the Official World Golf Ranking, to No. 6. He might merit an even higher ranking.

We don’t need complex math. We don’t need strength of field. We don’t need subjective judgments. 

You can be No. 1 in my system only if you win one of golf’s four major championships. Period. As for the Players Championship, well, its list of champions has taken some detours. The TPC Stadium Course hasn’t proved that it identifies the best player in the game, although that is also true of some major courses (Royal St. George’s, I’m looking at you) or when a course is set up badly with too much rough (Oak Hill in the 2003 PGA and Carnoustie in the 1999 British Open).

If you include the Players, then my system anointed Craig Perks, Fred Funk and Stephen Ames as the No. 1 player in the world.

Every system has flaws. Berths in big-deal tournaments could be based on finishes in big-deal tournaments. Some, apparently including Woods, thought he blew his chance to qualify for next week’s final Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone County Club when he missed a birdie putt on Carnoustie’s final hole at the Open. That gave him a sixth-place finish. When the numbers were crunched (the only crunches I like are Cap’n and Nestle, by the way), his OWGR jumped to 50. Woods squeaked into the field.

Wouldn’t it have been much easier to allow any player who finishes top 15 in a major championship (or top 20) to play at Bridgestone? No math, no Schoolhouse Rock numbers necessary, just a player’s finish on a scoreboard.

It’s simple, it’s clean and it’s without prejudice.

Its simplicity includes its own flaws, of course, so it’ll never happen. Using my plan, I don’t have to know that Molinari finished second and first in his two previous starts in the U.S. It doesn’t matter that he won the BMW PGA Championship, the flagship of the European Tour, before that and beat Rory McIlroy in a showdown.

All that matters is that Molinari won the 147th Open. The OWGR says he’s No. 6 in the world. 

Nope. Until the world’s finest convene at Bellerive in two weeks for the PGA Championship, Molinari is No. 1.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle


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