Twenty-nine years ago next week, the Official World Golf Ranking made its debut at the 1986 Masters.
Bernhard Langer was installed as the first-ever world No. 1, and the then-defending Masters champion held the mark for three weeks until Seve Ballesteros took the moniker and fought over it with Greg Norman for four years.
The formula has evolved over the years, but, now in its fourth different decade, it reflects an old-world attitude toward player and tournament rankings. It needs updating.
First, let’s establish the current formula.
The Official World Golf Ranking is calculated on a rolling, 104-week (two-year) basis, with players earning points based on their finish in tournaments around the world. Every major global tour without an age restriction awards points. Those points are doled out based on the strength of field, as measured by the ranking of the top-200 players in the field, as well offering points for a host tour’s top-30 players in the field.
Those points, once earned, are worth their full value for 13 weeks. Starting in the 14th week after they’re earned, they lose their value in 91 equal increments until they become worthless two years after earning them.
The combined value of a player’s points in that rolling, 104-week span is then divided by the number of tournaments started (in-tournament withdrawals count) — with a minimum divisor of 40, or an average of 20 starts per year — in that stretch to get the average number of points per start. The No. 1 player in the world is the one that has the highest average.
And you thought the FedEx Cup was tough to understand.
While the Official World Golf Ranking does very well in identifying the top players in the world, it struggles at the margins, particularly beyond the top 50 in the world — a crucial mark in determining the fields for so many tournaments.
So what are the problems? Here are the four primary issues:
1. Two years is too long…or not long enough: A two-year lookback period quite simply hurts the PGA Tour. The PGA Tour’s season ends in September, with most of the top names playing a reduced schedule in the new season that starts right after the Tour Championship ends. The Tour is arguably its weakest in October and November. Weaker fields mean less world-ranking points offered. Meanwhile, the European Tour’s season culminates in those months, with its strongest non-major events played in a four-week stretch straddling the two months. A big category of Masters invites goes to players in the world top 50 at the end of the calendar year. The European and Eastern Hemisphere-based tours benefit, leading to a somewhat self-reinforcing cycle.
2. Home Tour Rating bonus points are outmoded: Tournaments earn bonus points by having top-30 players from their prior year’s ranking (FedEx Cup points, Race to Dubai points, orders of merit, etc.) in the field — even if they’re ranked poorly overall. The bonus is limited to 75 percent of the tournament’s value based on the makeup of top-200 players in the field, but it can be a big boost to a field that could be seen as strong for a particular tour but weak overall.
3. The Minimum Divisor is too high: Top players typically play no more than 25 tournaments per year, but typically play closer to 20. Double that, you get 40, which is the minimum divisor for the ranking. However, if a top player gets hurt and is out for an extended period, the minimum divisor is a bigger drag on their ranking than the points they shed each successive week.
4. A tournament should require a larger minimum field size: It is an absolute crime that the Hero World Challenge offers world-ranking points. An 18-player field should not award points, but it’s grandfathered in at this point. The Tour Championship’s 30-player roster should be the minimum field size.
These clear issues dictate some obvious prescriptions to improve the world-ranking formula:
1. Change the lookback period to 80 weeks: Several years ago, I proposed the idea of an 18-month lookback period. However, that’s not long enough to truly balance the advantage other tours have over the PGA Tour at the end of a calendar year — the point that determines entry into the Masters. However, going back 20 months would come closer to evening out the end-of-year disparity.
2. Reduce the Minimum Divisor to 24: Playing 15 events in a year is the bare minimum on the PGA Tour. The European Tour requires 13. Let’s go with the slightly more stringent standard on the PGA Tour. It also will help players on smaller tours with shorter schedules to make full use of the points they earn. Over an 80-week, or 20-month period, that works out to 24 events.
3. Eliminate Home Tour Ranking bonus points: These were a good idea when the golf world was less connected, but now they seem gratuitous and overvalue many events, particularly in Asia.
4. Give value to every ranked player in the field: As far as the Official World Golf Ranking is concerned, any player ranked worse than 200th in the world doesn’t count toward field strength. They’re literally worthless. In the weather-canceled Madiera Islands Open on the European Tour, just one player — ONE! — counted toward field strength. That’s really bad. Bodies should count for something. Every player in the top 500 in the world should count for at least one point toward field strength. Every player ranked at all in the Official World Golf Ranking should count for at least a half-point. This will solve two issues: not weighing field size enough and compensating for the elimination of Home Tour Ranking points.
5. Bonus points for margin of victory: Not all wins are created the same. A playoff win is impressive, but not as impressive as blowing out the field by six. Player should earn style points for margin of victory — a half-point per stroke. This helps smaller tours and weaker fields on the major tours by giving value to winning.
6. Reducing the floor of world-ranking points for global tournaments: The Official World Golf Ranking has a floor for how many points it awards for each tournament. On the PGA Tour and European Tour, no winner can earn less than 24 world-ranking points. In Japan, it’s 16. For PGA Tour Canada, it’s six. Those floors should be cut in half for the world’s top 10 tours.
So, if these changes were implemented, how would the world ranking look now? Good question. That’s our next step with this: establishing a new world order, so to speak.
Over the next week or so, we’ll use the 2015-opening Official World Golf Ranking as a foundation for calculating a revised ranking for the first three months of the year.