PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas – Does Lydia Ko really deserve the No. 1 ranking in the world?
With Ko’s ascendance this week in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings, there’s quite the buzz over her arrival for Thursday’s start of the Pure Silk Bahamas Classic. At 17, she’s bringing worldwide attention to the women’s game as the youngest No. 1 in the history of professional golf. She’s also turning player attention more intensely to the world rankings and whether her ascendance exposes some unfair calculation in its formula.
To be clear, Ko has won immense respect from the player and caddie ranks in her short time as a tour member. She’s also very well liked. The discussion percolating on the practice range here over Ko’s No. 1 ranking isn’t a personal attack in its nature. It also isn’t about whether Ko is good enough to be No. 1. It’s about the world rankings formula and whether she has done enough yet to deserve the top ranking.
As one player offered up, it isn’t Ko’s fault the formula favors her.
In the two-year rolling window that the Rolex rankings measure:
• Inbee Park has won 10 times around the world, four of those victories major championships.
• Stacy Lewis has won six times, one of those a major championship.
• Ko has won five times, none of them a major championship.
When you look at the body of work laid out that way, you see why Ko’s No. 1 ranking raises questions.
What advantage does Ko have that isn’t evident in that body of work? It’s Ko’s average finishes being so far above everyone else’s average.
The Rolex rankings, like the Official World Golf Ranking for the men, award points to a player based on her finish in a tournament. The points fluctuate week to week based on strength of field with points weighted more in the last year and especially in the last 13 weeks. The major championships award 1,200 points, more than other events. This week’s Pure Silk Bahamas Classic will award 627 points.
A player’s point total is divided by the number of tournaments played within the two-year window. There’s a minimum divisor of 35.
Ko has accumulated 417.2 points in 43 tournaments. That makes her average 9.70.
Park has accumulated 532.11 points in 55 tournaments. That makes her average 9.67.
Lewis has accumulated 494.23 points in 56 tournaments. That makes her average 8.83.
Nobody has fewer tournaments as their divisor among the top 30 in the world than Ko does, but it should be noted Hall of Famer Karrie Webb also has 43 starts, same as Ko. Webb is No. 9 in the world rankings.
Asked Wednesday about Ko passing her in the rankings, Park did not complain, but she said she wasn’t surprised because of the math she knew was in play.
“She hasn’t played that many events, not as many as Stacy or me,” Park said. “So, her averages are a little bit different to us. I thought, at some point, if she keeps playing that consistent, she’s going to take over No. 1. And, yeah, it came pretty quick.”
While Ko is honored to carry the No. 1 ranking, she arrived this week trying to adjust to her new status and all the demands that come with it.
“I’m just trying to go back to my normal routine,” Ko said.
As Ko is discovering, that’s a challenge when you carry the No. 1 ranking. She made that comment from the Pure Silk Bahamas media center while on a teleconference with international media, a call set up because she is the new world No. 1.
“I’m very proud to be in that position, but at the same time, I’m trying to just kind of block it out and just be like another golfer, being on the course and just enjoying my time out here,” Ko said.
That’s a challenge, too. After news hit that Ko had become No. 1, she received congratulatory messages that would make your average 17-year-old’s head spin. Pop star Lorde, whose song “Royals” topped Billboard’s Hot 100, sent her a congratulatory tweet.
“I was like `Oh my God,’ because I’m a huge fan of hers,” Ko said. “That somebody of that status would give me a tweet like that is pretty awesome.”
Actor Don Cheadle also sent Ko a Twitter message.
“That was really cool, too,” Ko said.
Fellow players are curious how Ko will navigate with all the pressure that comes with being No. 1, including responsibilities that can seem burdensome. Yani Tseng spoke openly about being relieved when she lost the No. 1 ranking.
“It will be interesting to see how she handles it,” former No. 1 Cristie Kerr said.
Ko said she has been working with a sports psychologist, Jim Loehr, for a couple months now. She also has spoken with Lewis about what to expect as world No. 1. Lewis held the No. 1 ranking for 21 weeks last year.
“I played with her when she won her first event out here, when she was 15,” Lewis said. “So we've had a pretty cool relationship over the last few years, and she's watching what I'm doing, and I'm watching what she's doing ... I told her that her playing good golf helps us more than anything, and just to make sure that is No. 1. And to say no to some things and not feel bad about it.”
Lewis and Park appreciate how Ko’s story resonates beyond golf fans.
“I don’t think I was that mature at 17, that’s for sure,” Park said. “I think her age, it just surprises me, how she acts on the golf course, treating all things so professionally, not like a kid.”
Lewis sees what Ko being No. 1 offers the entire sport.
“I think for golf, in general, it's a big moment, and for women's golf it's an even bigger moment,” Lewis said. “It puts us on the map. It gives everyone something to talk about. To do something that she's done [going to No. 1], four years prior to Tiger Woods, that's just crazy to even think about. Just to have that comparison, and for people to just say, `Wow.’ It's one of those things I think is going to get outside of golf, and get some recognition there, and that's what we're looking for.
“Whether she's ready for it or not, we'll find out, but she'll learn on the fly, like she's been doing the last few years. She'll continue to learn and she'll figure it out. I think her golf is going to be the same, it's just managing all the extra stuff.”