“The world is unfair, Calvin,” the precocious child in Bill Watterson’s celebrated comic strip Calvin and Hobbes was once told by his father.
“I know,” Calvin replied. “But why isn’t it ever unfair in my favor?”
That Tao of Calvin has been embraced as a governing sentiment by European tour loyalists, who appear more alert than ever to any perceived dilution of their circuit’s long-established grace and favor status. And in August’s radical overhaul of the Official World Golf Ranking, the perpetually aggrieved found fresh wood with which to fashion a cross that they might nail themselves to.
“Laughable” is how Jon Rahm described the OWGR at this week’s DP World Tour Championship in Dubai. “The fact that the (PGA Tour’s) RSM Classic, which doesn’t have any of the top 20 in the world, has more points than this event, where we have seven of the top 20, is laughable.”
Rahm is a thoughtful guy and, to be fair, his comments erred only in their timeliness. The rankings were laughable. Now they are like most rating systems: merely imperfect.
Golf’s world ranking was compromised at birth and corrupted regularly thereafter, hosting to politicking and used as a statistical strut to prop up weak tournaments and tours. Member tours designated ‘flagship’ events, often ensuring more ranking points were awarded than would otherwise be justified by the strength of field. Every tour was also assigned a minimum number of points that would be given to winners of tournaments with weak lineups. The PGA and European tours both had a 24-point minimum. The PGA Tour relied upon that in roughly 12% of its events and the Europeans in about 50%, while other tours used it every time.
Any time an event was artificially inflated in value with the use of minimum points, the ranking was degraded, which also served to diminish the worth of accomplishments against elite fields. The 2019 Magical Kenya Open was elevated that year from the Challenge Tour to the main European circuit, but the field quality remained challenged. Justin Harding was the only player ranked higher than 117th in the world. He finished second and earned more ranking points (10.4) for that result against mediocre competition than he did for a T-12 at the Masters (10.3) a month later.
The system introduced this summer ended institutional bias and endemic false accounting. Every player contributes points to a total that is disbursed by percentage. The winner of the RSM Classic is projected to receive 37 points, or 17.2% of the 215 total points available. The winner in Dubai should get 21.8, or 18.2% of the 121 points on offer.
“The current method recognizes that every player contributes to the strength of a field,” said Mark Broadie, the Columbia Business School professor who devised the algorithm. “The winner of the DP World Tour Championship has to beat 49 players, with 34 of those players ranked in the top 200. The winner of the RSM classic has to beat 155 players, with 68 of those players ranked in the top 200, a considerably tougher challenge.”
People minded to look for eye-opening wrinkles in the ranking system won’t be disappointed. For example, the man who finishes dead last in the no-cut tournament in Dubai is projected to receive more points than the bottom four finishers in Georgia, who will have beaten 90 guys to play the weekend. The line between imperfect and unfair is often a matter of perspective, and legislating against every such scenario is impossible.
The OWGR has flaws but it isn’t laughable. Removing bias from any system will always be perceived as unfair by those who benefitted from that bias. Griping from those quarters ought to be greeted with skepticism, if not quite the contempt warranted for the conspiratorial guff being peddled by LIV golfers who are eager to portray the OWGR as lacking credibility or being part of a cabal intent on ruining Greg Norman’s folly. (It’s a diversionary tactic to skate around the pesky non-compliance issue.)
Dismissive verdicts like that of Rahm are proving commonplace among Europeans accustomed to their tour offering ranking points incommensurate with the talent pool competing for them. The only credible way to rank the world’s best golfers is to measure how they perform and against whom they do so, without consideration for legacy entitlements or politics. The new ranking system is finally weighted toward accuracy rather than influence. Some people are just unhappy that their thumbs have been dislodged from the scale.