For years, perhaps decades, the World Golf Ranking has prattled on virtually unchecked. For as long as most fifth-graders can remember, Tiger Woods was first in the ranking and for most that was good enough for them.
But then Woods stumbled, first to No. 2 and now all the way to third in the world, unseated by a non-major-winner and a German who has never played a full schedule in the United States.
For many, the final shoe dropped last weekend when the U.S. Golf Association made the ranking an even more important part of qualifying for the U.S. Open, dropping previous exemptions for finishes on various money lists for more openings via a player’s World Ranking.
Whether by design or a dearth of other options, the World Ranking has become the default litmus test for entry into the game’s biggest events from the majors to World Golf Championships. It is a blanket endorsement that ignores many of the problems, either real or perceived, with the current ranking.
“If you’re going to make so much ride on those top 50 or 60 spots you have to make it legit,” said Arron Oberholser, who has studied the World Ranking, warts and all, in much more depth than most of his Tour fraternity brothers.
From his home in Scottsdale, Ariz., Oberholser cuts straight to his concerns with the World Ranking; “Get rid of the ‘home tour’ bonus, get rid of appearance fees, get rid of the two-year rotation, up the purses in Europe and see where the guys want to play. If you want a legitimate ranking, that’s what you would have to do.”
For the non-MIT graduates, the “Home Tour” bonus increases an event’s overall strength of field, which determines how many World Ranking points are awarded, based on how many top-30 players from that circuit’s previous year’s money list are playing.
The previous year’s money winner is worth eight points, followed by No. 2 (7 points) and so on up to a maximum of 75 points or 75 percent of the total strength-of-field value.
The rule was established during the Nick Faldo-Greg Norman era as a result of skyrocketing purses on the American circuit. It was structured to protect the globe’s other circuits and give marquee players a reason to support the home tour, but has since become pro golf’s version of revenue sharing.
Last October, Bill Haas won the Viking Classic and earned 24 World Ranking points. A world away someone named Michio Matsumura won the Japan Golf Tour’s Tokai Classic and earned 18 points. It’s a snapshot that defies explanation based on the overall strength of the PGA Tour.
By clinging to the “home tour” rule officials have unnecessarily narrowed the global playing field and skewed the World Ranking.
“It’s like spotting a weaker ping-pong player seven points when you’re playing to 21,” Oberholser said.
“You know how deep your own Tour is, especially the guys who play on both sides of the pond. The European Tour is nowhere as deep (as the PGA Tour). The top 15 are just as good as our top 15, that’s proven every other year at the Ryder Cup. But in my opinion the European Tour gets weaker substantially after that.”
But the “home tour” rule is only part of the problem. The practice of appearance fees, which is not allowed on the PGA Tour, also works to undermine the current system.
Woods’ appearance this week is worth 32 points towards the Dubai Desert Classic’s strength-of-field total and Phil Mickelson’s start in Abu Dhabi last month came with 27 points. It’s pro golf freak-onomics – the more top players an organizer can attract the more important your event is perceived to be, at least in the eyes of the World Ranking.
Lucas Glover, who slipped to 65th in the World Ranking following last week’s Waste Management Phoenix Open and outside the WGC-Accenture Match Play bubble, decided to skip this week’s Tour stop at Pebble Beach. When asked if his man considered adding the Pro-Am to his schedule in order to make the field at Dove Mountain his manager confirmed a long-held assessment of the current ranking structure.
“He does everything with the Masters on his mind. He starts with Houston (Open) the week before and works his way back,” Glover’s manager with Crown Sports Mac Barnhardt said. “But if I was worried about World Ranking points I’d send him overseas, he’d get more points and an appearance fee.”
Barnhardt was simply echoing what has become an inconvenient truth for U.S.-based pros and a growing concern as the golf world continues to put more importance on a player’s ranking.
The system’s two-year rolling window is also a concern for Oberholser and others. Although points earned slowly expire, about 1 percent a week following an initial 13-week period, the system often seems out of date as evidenced by the fact that the current No. 1 (Westwood) has just two victories in his last 22 global starts.
Oberholser is quick to point out his concern with the ranking is neither an indictment of the European Tour nor a growing shift atop the ranking toward the Continent (Europe currently holds six of the top 10 spots in the ranking). Instead, his focus is on fixing a system that is increasingly becoming the benchmark of success in the pro game.
“The World Ranking will never be right unless everybody is playing on the same field every week,” Oberholser said. “Unless you get the same field week in and week out, the best 150 players in the world, you’re never going to know.
For now, that doesn’t seem likely. But what is just as clear is the status quo is no longer acceptable, not with so much riding on the math and the misplaced values of the World Ranking.