Ranking system requires math genie
By T.R. Reinman
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
February 22, 2000
CARLSBAD -- In Mark Twain's world, where golf is a good walk spoiled, statistics rank just after lies and damned lies.
They rank considerably higher in today's world of professional golf, where increasingly the only stat that matters -- where a player finished -- determines where he can start.
For example, the world golf ranking determined the field for the Andersen Consulting Match Play Championship that begins tomorrow at The La Costa Resort and Spa. The winner takes $1 million from a $5 million purse.
That field features the world's top available 64 players as of Feb. 13. No. 36, Jumbo Ozaki -- unavailable because La Costa is in Carlsbad, not Chiba, Japan -- was replaced by Michael Campbell, who the day before the deadline won his fourth title in five starts and moved into No. 65.
The ranking system has become as important as it is arcane.
"It's so important because it gets us into World Golf Championship events, the Masters, the British Open," said Phil Mickelson, " and beyond that it has bearing on some players' contractual dealings. I'm in favor of a system, but because it's so important I wish I could understand how it works."
The move toward world golf ranking came about nearly 20 years ago. The Royal and Ancient Golf Club wanted to ensure itself a quality field for the British Open, and with players moving toward more international play at the slight cost of asserting primacy on their home tours, defining that field by the old standards was becoming a bit dicey.
Cleveland-based International Management Group was asked to design a world ranking system. It did, essentially basing it on the strength of the field each week and awarding performance points down to a certain position.
IMG still manages the system, although now it reports to a board comprised of the four major championships and the six members of the International Federation of Tours, which stages the World Golf Championships, including the Andersen.
Born as the Sony World Ranking in 1986, it was perceived by American players to favor Europeans. In fact, with Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam in or approaching their primes, the balance of power may have tilted toward the Europeans at the time, although then as now the strength of depth was on the American side.
Now clearly the power at the top has shifted back to the U.S. tour, to the point that more foreign players than ever are playing here to test their games against the best and earn ranking points. Only three of the top 25 players are not members of the PGA Tour.
"I played many years in Japan, won tournaments, had many top-10s and didn't move in the ranking," said Carlos Franco. A year ago this week Franco was 43rd in the world and just starting his first year on the PGA Tour. He played 22 times in '99, with two wins and seven top-10s. This week he's 17th. "If you play in America," said Franco, Paraguayan by birth, "you are guaranteed a big heart and a better head because the competition is the best in the world. And if you play well, you can move up (in the ranking)."
In simplest terms, it works like this.
Each week on each tour, points are awarded for finishes down to a certain spot depending on the strength of the field. Major championships, the Players Championship and the European Volvo PGA have set point values generally significantly higher than regular tour events. Nine tours worldwide figure in the rankings, including the buy.com Tour (formerly Nike) and its European equivalent, the Challenger Tour.
Those points are halved one year after they're earned, so that a win on Feb. 1, 1999 is worth, say, 40 points until Feb. 1, 2000, when it's worth 20 points, and it's dropped on Feb. 1, 2001. A player must enter 20 events per year to be ranked. The points are divided by events entered over that period and a number is assigned.
That makes it tougher for a top player to drop if he plays well in 10 of 20 events a year. It also makes it tougher for another player to move up if he plays well in 10 events but plays 30 a year.
After Tiger Woods' astounding 1999 he was first with 19.98 points over 47 events. Mark O'Meara was No. 10 with 6.52. Bob Estes, who had played 59 events, was 30th with 3.86 points. Duffy Waldorf was 64th with 2.69 points in 52 events.
"You can't argue with anyone on the top of this list," said Fred Funk, perennially stuck somewhere around No. 50, "but unless you're winning, if you play a lot you dilute your points with your number of starts."
But, said Tony Greer, who runs the ranking system from an IMG office in London, for Woods to maintain his average he must finish in the top three every week. For Funk to maintain his, he has to average a 15th-place finish. In that sense, the ranking is reflective of each player's real position.
Dean Knuth, who works now in San Diego but years ago devised the USGA Handicap Index system, has cited a number of what he calls "problems" with the current system in magazine stories and a recent letter to PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem.
Among them, in Knuth's view, are an inequitable distribution of points among tours, an ineffective "decay" system for old points and undervaluing the major championships.
The system has been tweaked slightly this year, although Knuth called those changes "underwhelming" and maintains that his suggestions could be implemented more quickly than the years of study the ranking system board prefers to take with its own ideas.
Greer is well aware of Knuth's points but said, "The entire board approves of the ranking system and regularly reviews our policy to ensure that we are keeping up with changes in golf. We are not big on making changes overnight that the players cannot anticipate."
Starting in 2001, points will be devalued quarterly, which means a man who wins two tournaments one year and none the next won't stay as high as long. The idea is to make the rankings more current. If that were the case now, Campbell would have been well inside the top 64 this week instead of dependent on Ozaki's reluctance to visit the States.
No longer does the NEC, another World Golf Championship event, offer ranking points. With 41 of the world's top players in the field last year and no cut, Joe Ozaki finished last, 16 shots behind Woods, and still earned two ranking points because the field was so strong. Funk won a tour event in Reno the same week, but that was worth only four points because of the relative weakness of his field.
Funk played 34 events last year and today he's ranked 50th. Ozaki played just 15 here last year, the rest abroad, and he's ranked 43rd. It's that kind of result that baffles players like Mickelson.
Some players would like to see points awarded to anyone who makes a cut. Some would like to see a year-to-year system instead of a two-year period. Others would like to see a re-evaluation of the points distribution to the various tours.
But everyone seems to agree that the system is needed, changes will be made and whatever its shortcomings the world ranking is at least an attempt at fairness.
While pros may not agree with Twain's views on golf and statistics, none could argue his sense of fairness. It was Twain who said, "It's good sportsmanship to not pick up lost golf balls while they are still rolling."