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An Outside The Box Proposal

Two Ivy League profs say it's time to bring a little science to the Official World Golf Ranking

April 30, 2012

When Rory McIlroy tweeted on April 15, "#1 again without touching a golf club this week ... I wish it was that easy!" it was just the latest dig at the Official World Golf Ranking. McIlroy seemingly arbitrarily taking over for Luke Donald gave critics a new excuse to take shots at a system they've long distrusted, mostly because it seems indecipherable.

Besides offering at least partial satisfaction to the human appetite for quantifying who really is the best, it is complexity that has been the ranking's greatest ally. Through mostly ignorance, none of the criticisms leveled have been astute or specific enough to get traction.

Until now.

According to two Ivy League professors, the most important classification system in golf -- the criteria for the touring pro's back-stage pass to global competition -- might be a fundamentally biased system. Based on the research of Mark Broadie of Columbia Business School and Richard J. Rendleman of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth (and North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School), both with expertise in statistics and financial derivatives, the World Ranking is not based on standard statistical models.

Broadie and Rendleman say that the current system employed to rank the world's golfers rests on a foundation of unexplained, built-in biases that award ranking points in a random and sometimes circular fashion. One startling result, according to their research: Among the top 200 players listed in the OWGR, the average PGA Tour player is ranked 36 positions worse than he should be relative to players on other tours.

Not surprisingly, they have produced an alternative system -- using what's called a fixed-effect statistical model (see sidebar, page 40) -- they say will eliminate the bias. The Broadie-Rendleman "skill rank" would better determine the relative ability of a player on the PGA Tour versus a European Tour or even a OneAsia tour player. Using a tabulation that factored in common opponents and common venues, the skill rank would rate all tour players based on the comparative strength of their scores in each tournament. The key contrast to the existing system is that it would not pre-weight points based on a tournament's subjectively judged, assigned importance.

"The fact that there is bias means there is an impact on players," says Broadie, the Carson Family Professor of Business at Columbia Business School and a part of the team that developed the PGA Tour's sophisticated but extremely revealing strokes gained/putting statistic. "No system is perfect, but there are many choices for good systems that don't have this bias. While you may never be able to correctly identify the 48th golfer versus the 55th golfer in the world, you can design a system where it doesn't kind of arbitrarily help a golfer on one tour and hurt a golfer on another tour."

As an example, Broadie and Rendleman cite Nick Watney and Yuta Ikeda, two players with similar OWGR ranks, but who in 2010 would be 78 places apart in the Broadie-Rendleman skill rank. The difference is based largely on the theoretically much higher-ranked Watney's better scores in 10 of the 12 tournaments where the two were in the same field.

rory mcilroy and luke donald

Sticking point: McIlroy's recent return to No. 1 ahead of Donald--on a week the Irishman did not play--drew attention to the arbitrary way of ranking players. Photo: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

With all aspects of golf becoming more precise as global competition increases, it is not surprising that the OWGR is coming under its greatest scrutiny. Since the late Mark McCormack, the original sports agent, founder of International Management Group and perhaps the most influential stakeholder in professional golf for more than four decades, first came up with the method in the late 1960s, the world of golf has changed dramatically. Many more players now play on multiple tours, making a methodology based on a pre-weighting of those tours open to charges of randomness and even political favoritism. Broadie and Rendleman are essentially saying it is time to graduate from the subjectivity of human judgment to the objectivity of statistical science.

Although McCormack was a visionary, he wasn't a mathematician. He prefaced his then-revolutionary idea of a world ranking almost as if he were leading a lively after-dinner discussion "over a Canadian and soda," which is as he described it in his Golf Annual in 1969. Further referring to his enterprise as an "answer to the great bar, pub, tavern and grill-room question," he announced his decision with a certain enthusiasm. "I have it all now," he wrote, "the gall, the system, and the conviction, and, so I am now prepared to defend this first statistical presentation of who is the best, regardless of where they play, how much money they win, what their stroke averages are, and all normal ways of judging golfers.

"The problem," he wrote, "is both difficult and stimulating, which is why it causes arguments."

The arguments have become more intense as the stakes have risen. The OWGR has become the foundation for determining what players are deemed worthy of exemptions to the majors, exclusive World Golf Championships events and limited-field invitationals. Players in the top 50 in the World Ranking have a potential for earnings that those outside the top 50 simply don't.

Martin Laird, who has hovered near that financial cut line at times in his career, said he paid attention to those numbers. "That top 50 in the world rankings is huge, you get in all the majors and World Golf Championships events. That's where you want to be." (It's even more true than he probably knows. This year players ranked 31 to 50 at the end of 2011 have earned an average of 47 percent more dollars through the Masters than those ranked 51 to 70.)

The ranking also serves as the fuel for the game's major and minor tours to justify their existence, promote their home players and, not insignificantly, provide the marketability that attracts sponsors.

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