News & Opinion

Who’s really No. 1? It's not so tough to compute

In the Unofficial World Golf Ranking, Rory McIlroy doesn’t measure up to Brooks Koepka, who has produced far more major moments in recent years, despite what the computers might spit out

To put it simply, there is the Official World Golf Ranking and there is the Unofficial World Golf Ranking. And never the twain shall meet … well, sometimes the twain shall meet.

Whether it met last week, when Rory McIlroy overtook Brooks Koepka to occupy golf’s official Iron Throne, is a matter of debate. Underlying the discussion is a unique aspect of golf, one that drives old-timers crazy but one that certainly has inspired the career-minded in recent years.

Farmers Insurance Open
Rory McIlroy, who has returned to the top of the world ranking, doesn’t measure up to Brooks Koepka in what correspondent Dan O’Neill calls the Unofficial World Golf Ranking.

That is, you don’t have to win to succeed. The ambiguity tends to irk crusty veterans because in the old days, you did. Before Arnold Palmer and television changed the landscape, before Tiger Woods embellished it, you couldn’t afford to be a tour player if you didn’t win, at least sometimes. Your best bet was to have a real job and a reliable paycheck while you dabbled in tournament golf.

These days, a PGA Tour player can enjoy a terrific lifestyle and stay solvent as long as he makes some cuts, has a few top-10s and keeps his card. Don’t be mistaken; that’s not a criticism. In other major sports, if you’re among the top 150 players in the world, it’s raining Benjamins and Clevelands.

But golf has no guaranteed contracts. Each week, individual compensation is directly connected to individual performance. Yes, a few can command the occasional appearance fee, but that’s rare. Sidelined with a “hammie”? Scuffling because of a sore wrist? Missed the cut by a stoke? Thanks for coming, but you make squat.

Interesting contrast: In 2019, former baseball pitcher Bruce Sutter was guaranteed at least $1.12 million, per a contract that he signed with Atlanta in 1984. With his FedEx bonus, Aaron Baddeley made a little more than $1 million on the PGA Tour, or slightly less than Sutter.

Sutter, 67, hasn’t picked up a baseball since 1988. Baddeley, 38, was 122nd on last year’s PGA Tour money list. He didn’t win, but he had three top-10s, including a T-2.

So, you see, it’s all relative. Likewise, in the OWGR, you don’t have to be winner to be a good loser. You can be Lee Westwood, you can be Luke Donald, and you can be No. 1. The proof is in the points.

McIlroy is certainly worthy of recognition; no one would suggest otherwise. In 2019, he won the Players Championship and the Tour Championship, two of the biggest events on the calendar, plus the RBC Canadian Open. In November, he won the WGC HSBC Champions, which is part of the current wraparound season.

He captured the 2019 Vardon Trophy for the lowest scoring average (69.057), and over the past two seasons, he has 18 top-10s in 23 PGA Tour starts. My, God, he’s parallel-parking with one hand tied behind his back.

But in the UWGR, reality is not always perception. This is the world in which Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus resided, where Tiger Woods lays his hat, where the best aspire to hang. The unofficial is not based on points accumulated over two years, or calculations based on computer coding. The unofficial is based on winning and, to be more concise, winning major championships.

Since June, 2017, Koepka has won four majors. Last year, he won his second PGA Championship title in nine months and in the other three majors, he finished T-2, 2 and T-4. Along the way, he held No. 1 in the OWGR for 38 weeks.

McIlroy has won four majors in his career, but none since capturing the British Open and PGA consecutively in 2014. Last season, he finished behind Koepka in all four of the majors, missing the cut at the British Open in McIlroy’s native Northern Ireland.

As you may know, McIlroy has had this No. 1 ranking before, back when he was winning his majors. Back then, he was No. 1 in both the Official and Unofficial World Golf Ranking. The twain most definitely met.

This time, it’s a little different. McIlroy and Koepka did not play two weeks ago before both played last week at Riviera, where McIlroy tied for fifth and Koepka finished T-43. (McIlroy is entered in this week’s WGC-Mexico Championship, but Koepka is not.) A fresh calculation of the points entering Riviera week changed the batting order and returned McIlroy to No. 1 status in the OWGR.

Whether he made that jump in the UWGR, well …

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