Deciphering the Official World Golf Ranking

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While playing golf can certainly be its own expensive form of masochism, if you really want a self-inflicted migraine, try figuring out the Official World Golf Ranking (OWGR for short).

Here we are, more than halfway through the season, and I bet you have no idea who the world’s “best golfer” is, at least according to the OWGR. Okay, fine, you heard about Adam Scott when he lost his way into the top spot in May, but who else in the Top 10 can you name?

I’m sorry, what’s that? Martin Kaymer? Typical that you’d go with the recent Players and U.S. Open champ, but you’d be wrong. Even with nearly $4 million in the bank already, Kaymer is only ranked 12th heading into the Open Championship — and that’s even after he held the top spot not all that long ago back in 2011.

Phil? 13th. Rory? 8th. Tiger, who hasn’t even played in months? 7th. You can argue that the Top 20 all generally belong, but putting them in any kind of sensible order is apparently rocket science.

Tall order

Now I’ll be the first to admit: it’s a tough task. Why don’t you try to devise a system that accurately ranks the thousands of professional golfers in the world on six major tours who play hundreds of different events on hundreds of wildly different courses against vastly different competition every week.

It’s a moving target to say the least, and without much of a level playing field, the powers that be went all Beautiful Mind on their ranking system, and the results are understandably iffy.

Apples to oranges (to pineapples to oranges to grapefruits to kiwis …)

The OWGR was born in 1986 to the Championship Committee of the Royal and Ancient (aka the British Open dudes), who found that they had trouble gauging who the best golfers in the world were when sending out invites for the Open Championship.

Over the years, their formula has been refined — extensively — and is now endorsed by all of the biggest tours and major tournaments. Mind you, though, that doesn’t mean a) we can understand it, or b) it actually works.

Just do me a favor and look at this. Exactly.

Translation

So, let’s start with a sample: ummmmm, how about a rolling two-year window’s worth of golf? That’s a long time, and plays a big part in the OWGR’s wonkiness, but you certainly can’t win the top spot without some prolonged success.

Next, let’s rate the events themselves by, oh I don’t know, strength of field? Okay, well, to do that we’ll use a calculation that combines their World Rating Value (which is weighted by which and how many Top 200 OWGR players are in the field) and their Home Tour Rating Value (which is weighted by which and how many of the previous year’s “home tour” Top 30 golfers play).

Asleep yet? Don’t worry, it gets worse!

Math is hard

With a given event’s Total Rating Value, we then ascribe a correlating Event Ranking number: the four majors clock the highest at 100 points, The Players at 80, and on down the line. With that, we consult the table of death to determine how many Ranking Points each player gets based on how they finish.

While the table is frightening, it’s also the easy way out. What’s behind the table are a series of calculations and standardized “decrements” that literally can cause extreme dizziness and/or blindness.

For instance, a first place finisher gets the same number of Ranking Points as the event’s Total Ranking. From there, second place takes 60% of that number; third place takes 40%; fourth place takes 30%, and so on down to 1.5% for 60th place.

Pass the homeopathics

I could continue and break down how players hold their full points amount for 13 weeks after said event, whereupon their point total gets reduced in 91 weekly increments, or how points are averaged for multiple ties – but I’m not going to do that. … I can’t. I just can’t bring myself to do it, emotionally.

The point is that a player’s total Ranking Points for the two years gets divided by the number of events played to produce their Ranking Average.

And this, THIS is how players are ranked in the OWGR (If anybody asks this week, Adam Scott’s average is 8.86, do with that what you will).

What we have here is a failure to enumerate

If you’re still reading, I applaud you.

The long and short of it is that ranking golfers is hard, and so the method for doing just that is understandably complicated.

Why is Kaymer not even sniffing the top spot when he’s obviously the best player in the world right now? Some erratic stretches and missed cuts, especially those at the last two majors of 2012, are still holding him back given the two-year window.

The OWGR isn’t perfect, but it’s what we have, just one of several ways in which we attempt to compare players. In this day and age of sabermetrics and data analysis, formulas and algorithms are only becoming more ingrained in professional sports and in how we watch and/or argue about the game.

The choice is yours: Either delve into the secret formulas and track weekly Home Tour Ratings and Ranking Points, remain blissfully unaware of the analytics behind the curtain, or, you know, just go follow the money list.

Either way, the bottom line is that, if it’s not Tiger, none of us have any idea who the best player in the world is right now.

James Lower
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