No Middle Ground


Lee Westwood will likely dethrone Tiger Woods as the top-ranked player in the Official World Golf Ranking from his couch in the coming weeks. Seems about right since Phil Mickelson spent the better part of the summer trying to do the same thing from what appeared to be a La-Z-Boy.

Still, let’s call the changing of the top card the wrong execution of the right idea. Woods has not played like the world’s best in about a year but he’d built up enough real-estate left of his ranking decimal point to spark another housing downturn.

Kenny Perry
Kenny Perry is currently ranked 50th in the OWGR. (Getty Images)
It is interesting, however, that the shakeup atop the world ranking has caused such a stir. As a measure, Woods likely counts his record 279 weeks atop the ranking somewhere just north of having never missed a pro-am tee time and his collection of lavender cardigans.

For the world’s best it is wins – not money earned or scoring averages or FedEx Cup points – that move the needle. But for the rank-and-file the ranking is everything.

The media will fixate on the No. 1 debate in coming weeks, but it is the injustice of the middle ground that truly needs a fix.

The mystical math that will lift Westwood from the DL to No. 1 in the next few weeks is the same barometer that will decide, to one degree or another, who plays in next year’s major championships and World Golf Championships, the Presidents and Ryder Cups and even the PGA Tour’s Qualifying School Tournament.

The top 64 in the world play the WGC-Match Play Championship, half of the victorious European Ryder Cup team was there via the convoluted arithmetic of the OWGR and the top 50 as of Sept. 29 earn a direct pass to the final stage of Q-School, hardly a perk but still.

Contrary to urban legend, European players are impacted just as much, if not more, than the American frat brothers. If a player from the continent wants to split time between home and the United States his only chance is to be in the top 50, the ultimate benchmark for many tournaments.

“They have the life of Riley if they are in the top 50,” said Rocky Hambric, a longtime manager with a lengthy list of European clients. “’If not it’s really difficult to set a schedule.”

The World Golf Ranking was the original “Cigar Guy,” a political bargaining chip photoshopped into entry qualifications from Asia to Akron. A system that no one understands yet is the ultimate litmus test for those who want to play for pay at the highest level.

Most observers will tell you the current ranking system is skewed toward tours in Japan, Asian, Australia and South Africa. Minimum point provisions assure representation from these secondary circuits while more deserving players from the European and PGA tours watch the biggest events from the sidelines.

Exhibit A: Yuta Ikeda, a fine player back home on the Japan Golf Tour, is currently 61st in the world ranking despite not posting a single top-10 in 10 U.S. events this season. By comparison Brendon de Jonge is wallowing at 92nd in the ranking after a season that included seven top-10s on the PGA Tour and made cuts in both majors he played in 2010.

One of those players is currently qualified for next year’s WGC-Match Play Championship. The other is de Jonge.

As a rule, money lists are the purest form of competitive proficiency and many argue that the current reliance on the world ranking to decide fields at marquee events should be nixed in favor of a 'Cash is King' concept.

Set the line at top 30 in earnings on the PGA Tour and European Tour, while all other circuits are limited to the top 3 money winners.

The world ranking doesn’t need to be dismantled, just recognized for what it is – a conversation starter. If you want to know who is No. 1 go to the OWGR. But if you want to set the field for a major or WGC a more equitable system is required.

Or, if not a better formula, then at least a model free of the political patronage that ignores the talent gap between players in the big leagues (PGA and European tours) and the secondary circuits.

A model that awards points based strictly on the strength of field, not minimum point provisos, would be a start. Currently winners of events on the Asian, South African and Nationwide tours earn at least 14 points, while an Australasian or Japan tour champion gets 16 points. On the European and PGA tours that minimum is 24.

Without a points threshold, tours in Asian and South Africa and Japan would need support from their homegrown stars or go without. Either way it’s competitive Darwinism at its best.

No, we’re not overly concerned with who takes over the top spot in the world ranking in the coming weeks. But No. 50, now that’s a conversation starter.