Industry News

Golf’s metrics would benefit from old-fashioned ethos: Just win

By Gary Van Sickle

PALM HARBOR, Fla. – The Official World Golf Ranking is the most accurate ranking golf has ever had. It’s better than the money list, which for years was our main barometer. It’s better than the FedEx Cup points, which nobody cares about until the very end of the PGA Tour season, if then.

It’s still flawed. I don’t have a fix. What bothers me about the OWGR is that it is used so extensively to determine the fields for the majors and World Golf Championships. 

My main criticism is that the ranking reacts reasonably swiftly to good results and players on the way up but is far too slow to players going the other direction. 

It was a step in the right direction years ago when the OWGR, which debuted in 1986 because so many top players competed on more than one major tour, went from a weighted average over three years to a weighted average over two years. But golf is a game of now. If there’s a sport that doesn’t need a ranking (well, it’s always fun to debate), it’s golf. We have pretty good world rankings four times a year in golf. They’re called the major championships. 

Paul Azinger made the American Ryder Cup points race more relevant when he was captain in 2008 by opting to count only the results of the tournaments held in the same year as the biennial matches, plus reduced points for the previous year’s major championships. That made the selection process more current and was one of his building blocks to lead what was Team USA’s only victory this century until last year at Hazeltine.

One issue with a golf ranking is that no two tournaments are equal. If you win this week’s Valspar Championship at Innisbrook, say, the points you earn are based on the strength of the field. Because the top five players in the world – Dustin Johnson, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy, Hideki Matsuyama and even Jordan Spieth, the 2015 Valspar champion – aren’t playing, the winner will amass fewer points than a tournament with a stronger field, say the Genesis Open at Riviera (won by Johnson) or the Honda Classic. 

It’s like being a college football team stuck in a weak conference. You can beat only the opponents on the schedule. Should you really be penalized for that?

Maybe a one-year window in golf would be better; maybe not. It would reset each fall and after a certain number of events, we could start keeping score again. 

Here’s how the top 10 would look if we used only points gained this year in the OWGR:

1. Dustin Johnson (also No. 1 in current OWGR)

2. Justin Thomas (7)

3. Jordan Spieth (5)

4. Tommy Fleetwood (35)

5. Jon Rahm (25)

6. Hideki Matsuyama (4)

7. Rickie Fowler (9)

8. Sergio Garcia (10)

9. Justin Rose (13)

10. Gary Woodland (34)

Your first thought might be, Tommy Fleetwood? Who is he, and how did he get to No. 4?

Fleetwood is a 26-year-old Englishman who finished second in Mexico last weekend (and is no relation to Fleetwood Mac). So, he jumped way, way up in the standings?

Too far up? Probably. But don’t you want to identify golf’s hottest players as quickly as possible? 

I’m not saying this is a better system. They’re all just systems. I liked the old days (Warning: classic Old Guy Reminiscing Alert!) when you played tournaments, kept score and simply counted up the victories. In this era of detailed sports metrics, I suppose that’s an obsolete concept.

Tiger Woods had one thing right: It’s all about the W’s. Or should be. We never needed a world ranking to know where he belonged.

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