For both better and worse the Official World Golf Ranking has become an important part of the sport.
Being ranked No. 1 in the world still isn’t as important as winning a major title, but it has become extremely significant. It has also become quite lucrative: a player who is No. 1 or has been No. 1 is likely to make more money from sponsors; receive higher appearance fees overseas and often receives bonuses for time spent at No. 1. There is also extra-added financial value in reaching the top 5, top 10, top 20 and so on.
More significantly, in a pure golf sense, the world rankings are used to determine who gets into major championships, who gets into lucrative World Golf Championship events and, in the case of the WGC match play event, the rankings determine the seeding of the 64 players.
So, they are a big deal. Which means it is time they are fixed.
This isn’t about a tweak here and there, the sort that the rankings have been given since they first came into existence in April of 1986 when Bernhard Langer was ranked No. 1 just prior to that year’s Masters. It is about blowing them up and starting over again.
This past weekend should have been the final straw. Lee Westwood became No. 1 again. The fact that Westwood – who has never won a major title – is ranked No. 1 would be reason alone to question the rankings. In fact, six of the current top-10 have never won a major.
But the issues go way beyond that. Westwood climbed past Martin Kaymer to the No. 1 ranking by winning a tournament in Indonesia in which the next highest-ranked player in the field was No. 90 Thongchai Jaidee and only one other player was ranked in the top 150.
Westwood went to Indonesia because he received a huge appearance fee, reportedly in the neighborhood of $500,000. Paying top players appearance fees is common overseas – it is the reason that Westwood and Ernie Els are teeing it up this week in South Korea.
Appearance fees are a pox on all sports. They have damaged tennis almost irreparably over the last 30 years, in part because most of them are still paid under the table, but also because there is no flow to the tennis season and not many pay attention to the sport except when the four majors are being played.
Golf is in better shape than that. Appearance fees are not against the rules except on the PGA Tour so at least they are out in the open. But the fact that the number of world rankings points available in an event goes up based on the number of highly-ranked players entered, skews the entire process.
Westwood’s presence in Indonesia almost doubled the amount of rankings points available to him and to the rest of the field. It allowed him to beat a field that may have been as good as a Nationwide Tour field and regain the No. 1 ranking. He got a bonus when he found himself playing against a bunch of guys who were as likely to ask for his autograph off the golf course as beat him on the golf course.
Problem 1: Tournaments receiving extra rankings points by paying players up front. Solution: Take away rankings points for each player paid an appearance fee. Deduct 10 percent for each player paid up front.
Problem 2: The rankings are calculated on a rolling two-year basis. On January 1 everyone goes to zero in the rankings. The only exception to this would be in determining a player’s rank for the match play event in late February. For the purposes of the match play only, the clock on rankings begins the week after it is played each year. That way, if a player is hot in January and February, he can still play his way into the top 64 for the match play. For all other purposes the rankings begin anew each January.
Invitational tournaments, most notably the Masters – but also Bay Hill, Colonial, the Memorial – can continue to use end of the year rankings and money lists as criteria for choosing fields as they have always done.
Finally, the rankings should actually be divided into two categories: the top 25 – much like in college football and college basketball – and everyone below the top 25. The computer, again, based on that year’s play, decides the top 50, top 100 – all the categories that involve entry into tournaments.
But the top 25 is decided by a poll of golf experts: 70 people selected at the start of each year by a board (one rep from each of the major tours worldwide) that can choose ex-players (including senior players no longer competing on the regular tours), writers, broadcasters and golf officials as voters. Each Sunday night the voters will e-mail votes and the results will be released Monday morning. Each ballot will be made public – as the Associated Press does with its football and basketball ballots. No secrecy here. If you think Lee Westwood is No. 1 this week regardless of who he is playing against – fine, vote for him and stand behind the vote. At the end of each year the board will review the performance of each voter and decide if they should be invited back the next year.
That would, if nothing else, make the weekly rankings more fun. How do you argue with a computer? You can’t. Let’s argue a little bit, let’s put a human element into the top 25 and let’s stop counting tournaments that happened two years ago in a player’s ranking. And, while we’re at it, let’s not give top players an extra reason, beyond the money, to play in tournaments they normally wouldn’t.
Oh sure, the world rankings should be about winning. But is it really winning when you beat your little brother one-on-one in the driveway?