Math Weighs in Donald's Favor


Martin Kaymer entered last year’s British Open ranked 13th in the world, put himself in position to make a run at Louis Oosthuizen on Sunday, then missed a bunch of short putts and tied for seventh, 10 strokes back. I remember thinking maybe Kaymer didn’t have the stomach to become a superstar, and that Oosthuizen, as good as he looked, might turn into the second coming of Shaun Micheel.

So I went one-for-two that week, and Kaymer would move up one spot in the world ranking, three places behind Luke Donald, who had finished T-11 at St. Andrews. In the 7 ½ months since, both players have performed at a consistently high level, especially in relation to those who were ranked ahead of them at the time.
Luke Donald
Luke Donald earned his first PGA Tour victory since 2006 at the WGC-Match Play. (Getty Images)

That is a very important factor to consider when wondering how Donald, who hadn’t won a PGA Tour event in five years, could climb to third by virtue of his victory over Kaymer at the WGC-Accenture Match Play. If no serious golf fan can find fault with Kaymer taking the No. 1 spot from Lee Westwood this past weekend, Donald’s move to No. 3 clearly has raised some eyebrows, two of which were mine.

Before Donald had even hoisted the trophy, I fired off a text to Kevin Schultz, coordinating producer of the “Grey Goose 19th Hole,” asking that we include the Englishman’s unfathomable rise in the topics for our Wednesday night discussion. Then I decided to do some research. Shoot now, ask questions later.

The longer you look at his recent body of work, the more you realize Donald is certainly worthy of No. 3 – you could easily argue that he should be second, ahead of Westwood. Here is how the two Brits stack up over the last year.

Westwood: 19 starts, two wins, three seconds, one third, one missed cut.

Donald: 25 starts, two wins, three seconds, five thirds, four missed cuts.

Of course, it’s not just about how you finish, but where you do it. Westwood’s victories came at the St. Jude Classic, which would rank in the PGA Tour’s bottom third in strength of field, and the Nedbank Golf Challenge, a South Africa Tour event with a star-studded cast but only 12 participants. Donald won the Madrid Masters, which had a slightly weaker field than the St. Jude, and the Match Play, a World Golf Championship that earned him 76 ranking points, 24 fewer than you get for winning a major.

That seems a bit light to me. Two of Westwood’s three runner-ups came at the Masters and British Open  – he earned 60 points for each. In terms of value, winning a WGC should be closer to winning a major than finishing second at a major. Especially when you get one of those seconds by finishing seven strokes behind the champ, as Westwood did at the British.

Donald’s runner-ups weren’t at majors, but all three were at elite-field tournaments: the BMW PGA Championship, one of the biggest events on the European Tour; the Deutsche Bank Championship and Tour Championship, both of which are FedEx Cup playoff tilts. For second place at the BMW, Donald received 32 points – the two FedEx deals were worth about the same. Westwood, meanwhile, earned 40.8 for his second at the WGC-HSBC Champions, a new event with a strong field that hasn’t been sanctioned by the PGA Tour.

Basically, Donald has been every bit as good as Westwood over the last 12 months, which takes us back to a significant and largely overlooked premise. The best way to move up in the world ranking is to play better than the guys ahead of you. Kaymer got to No. 1 by setting the world on fire – four victories and a second since last August. Westwood and Donald have gotten to Nos. 2 and 3 because Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have fallen off so sharply, as this 12-month glance will attest.

Woods: 18 starts, no wins, one second, three fourths. The runner-up came at the Chevron World Challenge, which had an 18-man field.

Mickelson: 24 starts, one win, two seconds, one fourth. The runner-up at Torrey Pines in late January is Philly Mick’s only top-five finish since last June’s U.S. Open.

It’s easy to pick on the world ranking because it is pro golf’s version of the inexact science – an objective measure in what is largely a subjective process. The mathematical formula has changed many times over the years, most recently to place greater value on a player’s latest performances, but there is no such thing as a perfect system. The results themselves may come to us in black and white, but how those results are weighed is, at least partially, a matter of interpretation.