Sunday, 29 November 2015

World ranking evolution shapes the pro game

I once asked Tiger Woods how much he understood about how the Official World Golf Ranking is calculated. This was three years ago and he was in the process of inching his way back to the No. 1 position, one he held for 683 weeks of his life, far and away the all-time record.

It wasn't a trick question. Some players are acutely aware of the algorithm and how it affects their number on a weekly basis; others, largely by design, only forge a vague understanding of its intricacies, comfortable in the simple knowledge that playing better will move them higher.

I wanted to know which theory Woods applied.

He answered by rightfully claiming he hadn't reached his minimum divisor -- 40 events during a rolling two-year period -- since the early years of his professional career. I followed up by asking if he realized how playing more frequently could help him move closer to that divisor and thus higher on the ranking.

He offered a five-word response: "Yeah, I can do math."

Like a baseball umpire or a football lineman, the Official World Golf Ranking is often only discussed when there appears to be a flaw in the system, when the outside world deems the computer -- always uttered with disdain -- a less worthy judge than the ol' eyeball test.

This year alone, we've witnessed players moving to No. 1 in the world following a week of vacation, which makes for a convenient punchline, but underscores Woods' terse yet salient point about the formula: It's just math.

The most common refrain from the masses who rail against the OWGR is that it doesn't mean anything. This argument often follows a linear pattern: The best players are determined by victories; the biggest victories are major championships; therefore, the best players are those who win majors. As to who is ranked ahead of whom through the statistics-based algorithm, these dissenters will usually close the argument with one final retort: Who cares?

That seemingly rhetorical question can easily be answered in two words: The players. They care, that's who. Upon becoming No. 1 in the world for the first time in August, Jordan Spieth called it "one of my lifelong goals in the sport"; when Jason Day overtook him a month later, he insisted, "I've really wanted to reach this goal for a very long time now."

It doesn't just mean something to players in the figurative sense, either. There are certain checkpoints through which a specific number of golfers will qualify for a tournament; for example, the top 50 at year's end will receive invitations to next year's Masters Tournament.

That can be a career-changer. At its most elite level, professional golf is often a game of dominoes. Pass through one checkpoint and another becomes more reachable; then again and again, climbing a veritable ladder. Even if a player doesn't win the Masters directly following a top-50 qualification, he might finish high enough that he earns a return invitation, which in turn gets him into another event, which he in turn wins.

So yes, they care. Which is reason enough for anyone else who owns a keen interest in professional golf to also care about the Official World Golf Ranking.

The rankings were the brainchild of Mark McCormack, the founder and former chairman of IMG. The man who'd signed Arnold Palmer as his first client had always wanted a way of rating the world's best players. On April 6, 1986, he got his wish. The Official World Golf Ranking was introduced during Masters week, with Bernhard Langer the first player to be ranked No. 1.

One of the key factors in its implementation was support from the R&A, which sought a better gauge for allowing global players into its Open Championship field. Understandably, "home base" for the OWGR became IMG's London office. The ranking was initially sponsored by Sony, a relationship so palpable that to this day Nick Faldo, who was No. 1 for a third-highest 97 weeks, still refers to original developer Tony Greer as "Sony Tony."

Sony dropped its sponsorship in 1997, but by this time, the four major championships were already using the ranking just as the R&A had designed, filling their fields with the highest-ranked players. Now deemed a necessity, the OWGR remained an IMG entity until 2004, when OWGR Limited was founded by seven shareholders: The PGA Tour, the European Tour, the International Federation of PGA Tours and the four organizers of major championships -- Augusta National, the USGA, the R&A and the PGA of America.

It was logical that one of those shareholders run the daily operations and even more logical that its base remain in London, which explains how a small staff of European Tour employees now oversee the OWGR from their Wentworth headquarters.

"It's a great privilege to work on it," beams Ian Barker, whose official job title is director of data services for the European Tour, but has worked directly with the OWGR for the past 11 years. "People are fascinated to know how it works. I've done quite a lot of quick five-minute synopses of it."

Even the abridged version requires plenty of explanation.

Start with the nuts and bolts. The OWGR ranks players through a rolling 104-week period. Each tournament on 18 different major tours each week carries a specific number of ranking points, largely based on field strength, with each position on the final leaderboard subsequently allotted specific points per player.

The ranking, though, doesn't simply total up those points. It tallies an average point total, using a maximum divisor of 52 tournaments and minimum of 40. Many players will compete in an average of one tournament every two weeks during this cycle to reach the maximum; others won't play more than 20 events in a calendar year and won't reach the minimum.

In order to keep current form as a main component of the ranking, after 13 weeks the weight of performance gradually decreases. This was added into the original algorithm in 2006 in order to alleviate a major drop in points when a certain tournament fell from that cycle.

"One common misconception is the idea of the anniversary effect," Barker explained. "That's how the original system worked. If you came to a week where you played well one year ago or two years ago, you would take a big hit in points. We changed the algorithm, so there was no big drop."

Therein lies an important note about the OWGR: It's an ever-evolving calculation. That doesn't mean the algorithm can change on a weekly or monthly or even yearly basis, but as the world's tours change, the ranking has changed to mirror this effect.

"Since I started the ranking nearly 30 years ago," said Greer, who still works with the OWGR as a consultant, "the governing board has monitored the system on a regular basis, listening to the tours and players alike and have made a number of adjustments to the ranking process, although the fundamental basics remain the same."

According to Barker, there are two major characteristics of the ranking that everyone from players to officials to fans have trouble wrapping their minds around. The first is that unlike the FedEx Cup or the Race to Dubai or any money list, it never gets zeroed out. There is no starting line where every player begins running when the gun sounds. Instead, it's like a continuous marathon, each player running different distances at different speeds with no starting line -- and the algorithm is simply trying to determine which players are running the best.

The second is that -- again, unlike points lists and money lists -- numbers aren't just accumulated, they're also lost. To use another analogy, think of it like your bank statement. You might not be a billionaire nor bankrupt, but the bottom line figure is a reflection of how well you've earned and saved your money.

"Once people grasp that, it really does help," Barker said. "We have to have a mechanism for players losing points as well as gaining points. The player has no real control about the losing of points."

For those who believe the OWGR lacks emotion, he then wistfully explains of this process, "It's just the passage of time."

Barker insists that he's never had a player mad about his ranking confront him directly or call the OWGR office with a complaint. He has, though, explained the formula to those who want to understand it better, and he maintains that each of these explanations is received with genuine gratitude.

Even so, he also realizes how some players might not be wholly satisfied with their number.

"There is always going to be more than 50 players who feel like they should be in the top 50," he said, "but there can't be."

If some are unsatisfied, at least one owes a debt to the OWGR -- and to Barker himself.

A month ago Ian Poulter found himself in a desperate position. Needing four more European Tour starts to fulfill his requirement of 13 to retain membership and remain eligible for next year's Ryder Cup, the former hero of that event had planned to compete in the WGC-HSBC Champions, followed by the three other Race to Dubai tournaments.

Poulter was 46th in the OWGR at that point; he just needed to be top 50 in order to qualify for the HSBC. Such precipitous downward movement doesn't happen often this time of year, but he was the victim of a perfect storm of sorts. While Poulter was home in Orlando, Emiliano Grillo won on the PGA Tour and Andy Sullivan won on the European Tour, each moving inside the top 50. Instead of Poulter dropping just two spots, though, he dropped five, meaning he wouldn't automatically be qualified for the HSBC and he'd have to add one more event -- that week's UBS Hong Kong Open -- to fulfill his requirement to retain membership.

Poulter embarked on a whirlwind tour and was given a spot in that week's field when sponsor exemption Rich Beem withdrew to make room. While Beem was offered a nice dinner via social media from Poulter and drew the ire of American fans by potentially helping him make the Ryder Cup team, it was someone else who started that chain of events.

"Somebody would have caught it by midday," Barker said sheepishly, having been the first to figure out the situation. "I just got it a little earlier."

If Poulter helps Europe to another Ryder Cup victory next year at Hazeltine, Barker can share the credit -- or blame -- along with Beem.

How does the math work when a player can sit home and move up or down the ranking?

On Aug. 30, after forgoing the initial tournament of the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup playoff series, Rory McIlroy passed Spieth to once again become No. 1 in the world.

On Sept. 6, after McIlroy finished in 29th place at the Deutsche Bank Championship and Spieth missed his second consecutive cut, Spieth leapfrogged McIlroy to return to No. 1.

On Sept. 14, after a week in which there was no tournament scheduled, McIlroy again jumped ahead of Spieth to become No. 1.

On the surface, it all sounds hopelessly dire. The OWGR is meant to rank the best players based on performance -- and yet, here we are, the ranking showing no apparent reflection of recent results.

For the year so far, the No. 1 ranking has changed hands eight times, with McIlroy owning the title for 34 weeks, Spieth for nine and Day for four.

To fail to understand how and why this happened, though, is to fail to understand the formula itself.

Let's remember: The ranking isn't an accumulation of points, but an average once the divisor is factored in. McIlroy became No. 1 after skipping the Barclays because his divisor went from 45 to 44, since he'd played that event two years ago. He's now having virtually the same number of points divided by a smaller number, which obviously increases his average point total.

The next week? That divisor went from 44 back to 45, the average point total dipped and Spieth returned to No. 1. The week after that? Once again, he went from 45 to 44; once again, his average points spiked.

"It was completely out of anybody's control," explained Barker. "He went from 45 to 44, because he wasn't playing the week he had two years ago and that had a positive effect."

It might sound like a mystery or even a punchline when one player can vault past another while playing poorly or even not playing at all. Really, though, there's no secret to it.

As they like to say around the OWGR office, the greatest strength of the ranking is that it's completely transparent. Anyone who cares enough is able to understand how and why certain things happen.

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