PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – His vocation was civil engineering. His passion was sports and statistics.
Tony Greer found enough spare time between the two to devise a world ranking for golfers, and it turned into more than a hobby. His system earned the attention of Mark McCormack, the late founder of IMG who had been publishing his own rudimentary rankings in the annual “World of Professional Golf.”
Neither could have imagined how it would shape golf’s growing landscape.
“It’s an exciting time at the moment,” Greer said this week from his home in London.
When he first started to develop a world ranking, Greer said it was far less complicated to sort out the best players in golf.
“You looked at the PGA Tour money list,” he said.
Until the emergence of Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo, then Greg Norman and Bernhard Langer. And while Tiger Woods has dominated the ranking like no other – he has been at No. 1 for 85 percent of his pro career – his recent slump has created opportunity for so many others. And it has put the Official World Golf Ranking at the front of any discussion involving global golf.
Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer and Woods – Nos. 1, 2 and 3 in the world ranking – will be in the same group for the Dubai Desert Classic. It’s the first time since 1994 that a regular European Tour event has had the top three players in the world. On the other side of the world, Phil Mickelson is at Pebble Beach with a chance to move ahead of Woods for the first time since the 1997 Masters.
At both tournaments, players will be jockeying to finish among the top 64 and qualify for the $8 million Match Play Championship in two weeks.
You can count on some controversy. That hasn’t changed. Questions about the mechanics and methodology of the world ranking will never go away. There is no system to accurately compare the strength of tours around the world.
“How do you know that I’m No. 198, and some guy from Zimbabwe is No. 199?” said Paul Goydos.
For those who don’t like the ranking, they better get used to it.
Paul Azinger once said the only things that ever made him choke were cash or prestige. He never said anything about ranking points.
But that’s the direction golf is going.
The U.S. Golf Association’s decision last week to eliminate the money list as a criteria for getting into the U.S. Open was only the latest step in giving the world ranking more importance, if not credibility.
The U.S. Open still puts as much emphasis on “United States” as it does on “Open.” It is sensitive to where the major is played, and it strives to keep half of its 156-man field open to qualifiers. But it also wants to be the strongest test for a major, inviting the best from around the world. The USGA ultimately decided what McCormack learned years ago – money might not be the best barometer anymore.
That’s why starting next year, it will swap out money lists from four tours with the top 60 in the world ranking.
“We’re more comfortable with that than we are trying to figure out internally how we judge various tours around the world,” said Mike Davis, the senior director of rules and competition. “Virtually everybody will admit that any ranking system is never going to be perfect. But we think it’s more equitable than what we do.”
The knock on McCormack and his initial idea for a world ranking was that he was only trying to promote his clients at IMG. The rebuttal was that IMG had most of the best players, anyway.
“He was always a bit of a statistical buff,” Alastair Johnson said. “For a long time in his annual, he compiled a world money list. That spawned the ranking, as it became clear a money list was distorted by the value of the dollar and obviously, the overwhelming focus on the U.S. tour and the size of its prize money. That made everything else in the world somewhat irrelevant as far as performance on the golf course.”
There have been some critical junctions for the world ranking, none more than when the Royal & Ancient became the first to use it to help determine the field for the British Open.
Five major tours around the world, along with four major championships, endorsed the world ranking at a meeting in Turnberry in 1997. A year later, the U.S. Open created a new exemption for the top 20 in the world. And then came Augusta National a year after that, doing away with its U.S. PGA Tour winners exemption (since restored) in favor of the top 50 in the world.
“It wouldn’t have gotten off the ground without the R&A endorsing it,” Johnson said. “It wouldn’t have been born. And with the Masters, that’s what I would call absolute icing on the cake.”
The latest development to elevate interest in the ranking is Woods.
He has gone nearly 15 months without winning, paving the way for Westwood to reach the top. But so many other players are lined up behind the Englishman that as many as a dozen have a chance at No. 1 this year.