The Loop

Golf's World Rankings are almost perfect, and if you don't get them, that's your problem

September 14, 2015

"How can Jordan Spieth miss a cut and still move to no. 1? How can Rory take it back in a bye week? The world rankings are a joke!"

If you've heard somebody else say this recently, and you agreed, slap yourself. If you've said it, slap yourself harder. And if you finish reading this article and haven't seen the light, just keep slapping yourself until 2016, read it again, and repeat.

My position is simple: The OWGR (Official World Golf Rankings) is a terrific system that has proven incredibly adept at identifying the world's best golfers, and nobody has ever formulated a reasonable argument against it—much less an alternative.

In other words, if you don't "get" it, it's because you haven't spent any time trying to understand the system. You are practicing something called "willful ignorance," and even though willful ignorance has essentially become a national sport, you should not be proud. You should not pat yourself on the back as you use an aberration to denigrate what is a valid, and I would even say brilliant, system. If you use Spieth's rise to slander the OWGR, you're not demonstrably different than a rube who points at a snowflake and says, "see? Global warming is fake!"

We're going to talk about the OWGR, and we're going to talk about Jordan Spieth ascending to the top spot despite a missed cut, and we're going to talk about history. But first, I'd like to introduce a couple of easy exercises. Number one: I'm going to list the top five players in the world by OWGR, and you're going to tell me if that ranking makes sense based on the golf you've watched over the past two years:

Those five players have won six of the last eight majors, a Players Championship, a BMW PGA Championship, four of the past seven WGCs, the last two FedExCup playoff tournaments, and a slew of smaller PGA Tour and European Tour events. These are, indisputably, the best five players in the world, which means that the OWGR nailed it. Even if you don't like math, you can appreciate this. You can content yourself with the clear, undeniable evidence: The system works! It correctly ranks the world's best players! The result vindicates the process! Hooray! We can move on to demanding a Walker Cup task force!

Exercise two: If you are interested in the math, and you've taken the time to insult the OWGR lately, I'll give you a moment to put your money where your mouth is. Please, devise a superior system that A) Yields the results we already have; B) Is easy to understand without being laughably ineffective; C) Doesn't involve knocking Jordan Spieth down to 147th place after one missed cut.

Because that's the rub—ranking golfers is hard, whether pundits want to admit it or not. How do you weight bigger tournaments, with superior fields, against the weaker events? How far do you go back before the results are judged irrelevant? How do you incorporate the (100% necessary) recency bias, so Jack Nicklaus isn't the world's no.1 golfer? What are the punishments for missing a cut, and what are the rewards for an outright win?

There's a lot to consider, but—lucky us—the OWGR has already considered it. This is the point where I explain how the system functions, but if you want to read it from the horse's mouth—which you should, if you plan on slamming it anytime soon—go here. I'm just giving you the cliff notes.

1. The OWGR uses two years, or 104 weeks, worth of results.

2. Each player earns points based on how he finishes in a tournament. He earns more points for a higher finish.

3. If a tournament field is strong, total points rise. If a field is weak, total points fall. This next sentence will be the most complicated I write: There's a world rating chart (taking into account the quality of players) and a home rating chart (taking into account the number of quality players from the home tour), and those numbers are combined into a "strength of field" rating. After that, the OWGR has a handy guide telling them exactly how many points each finisher should get.

4. The points a player earns in a tournament are counted, in full, for 13 weeks. After that, the value decreases by about 1.09 percent per week for the remaining 91 weeks, diminishing gradually until the 105th week, when it vanishes into the fog of time and is counted no more. Does that create some complicated math? Absolutely. Is it difficult to understand? Absolutely not.

5. Each player's total points are added, divided by his total events played, and then, voila, world rankings!

Maybe you read all that and said, "You know what? This is still pretty complicated."

I would agree. It is complicated. But it's beautifully complicated, the way some things have to be beautifully complicated in order to function accurately. If we built our roads or buildings or airplanes or cars without obeying some pretty knotty mathematical formulas, we'd live in a state of constant ruin. I'm not saying world rankings are as important as our infrastructure, but they do require a bit of complexity.

Anyone who claims there's a simple solution is selling you snake oil. Inventing a world rankings system in an individual sport without easy-to-define wins or losses is a hard problem, and hard problems don't have easy answers. That's why every complaint you read about the OWGR is followed by half-cocked, impractical solutions, or, more often, no solutions at all.

Now we return to the Spieth Paradox. How can someone miss a cut and still overtake another player for the top spot in the world? Well, it's certainly not common, but occasionally strange things happen, and they give ammo to the OWGR's detractors. So let's ask ourselves: Why do strange things happen?

Jordan Spieth earned zero points for his missed cut at the Deutsche Bank, while Rory McIlroy earned 3.21 points for his T-29 finish. That's a net gain of 3.21 for Rory. But as we saw above, each week also knocks one event into the fog of time for each player, and it reduces the value of each event that didn't take place in the last 13 weeks by about 1.09 percent. You know which events didn't happen in the past 13 weeks? Rory's wins at the 2014 majors, along with his last two WGC victories. You know which events did happen in the past 13 weeks? Spieth's win at the U.S. Open and the John Deere and his fourth-place finish at the British. For now, those events count more, while Rory's best accomplishments are worth less all the time—as they should be. Amidst those calculations, Spieth gained enough points to offset the Deutsche Bank loss.

All that being said, this situation is still incredibly rare. As rare as possible, in fact—Spieth is the only player to become no. 1 after a cut since the OWGR began. And after the off week, Rory jumped back ahead of Spieth by the closest margin ever—another rarity.

That, to me, is a sign of the OWGR's health, not its weakness; it's the odd exception that proves the rule. The exciting Spieth v. Rory race has produced the perfect storm of narrow margins, and they'll probably flip a few more times before a clear winner emerges. We should be giving the rankings a standing ovation, because they're perfectly reflecting the national debate—who's the superior golfer? There's no consensus, and that uncertainty is mirrored by the OWGR. Looked at from a certain angle, isn't it pretty incredible that the system seems to understand that we're witnessing a historical rivalry?

Speaking of history, the OWGR was first published before the Masters in 1986, but Mark McCormack—sports agent, Yale Law grad, U.S. Army vet, and a generally brilliant guy who also helped invent tennis' world rankings—had been publishing rankings based on his own complex system, the OWGR's precursor, since 1968. And unlike many governing bodies in golf, the OWGR are not deaf to criticism or immune to self-improvement. Since the beginning, the rankings have undergone various adjustments and tweaks, evolving until it became the elegant, misunderstood system we know today. The flaws have been addressed, and addressed again, and again, to the point of near perfection.

I've just spent a lot of words defending the OWGR, but in reality, I only need these: The proof is in the pudding. The funny thing about all the complaints is that we constantly attack the system, but we never seem to attack the actual rankings—they're too good. This is the rare case when the people in charge know exactly what they're doing, and instead of blindly throwing rocks at something we don't understand, maybe we should step back and appreciate the product. Plainly put, the damn thing works.