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A semi-serious idea for ranking golfers inspired serious feedback. Here’s what you said

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Harry How

January 25, 2023

A few weeks ago, I proposed a new ranking system for professional golfers, inspired by the current PGA Tour-LIV Golf OWGR stalemate and the potential collateral damage it could inflict on the four major championships.

I won’t rehash the entire idea here—you really should read the storybut it’s important you know the broad strokes, so here goes:

— LIV Golf is not yet recognized by the Official World Golf Ranking and might not ever be, owing mostly to its unique format of 54 holes and 48-man fields. Since the OWGR is used by the major championship in part to fill out their fields, that means some elite LIV players—after they drop down the ranking and other exemptions expire—might be shut out of the most important events in golf.

— Is this a problem? Maybe not seeing how the players who defected to LIV Golf bolted for more money with little regard for golf’s traditional structure. Many of you still believe this. But I believe it is a problem when the majors, the four sacred weeks of the golf year, lose some of their luster if some big-name players aren’t even playing.

— Enter my idea, borne out of a text conversation with colleague Joel Beall, which then resulted in a roughly devised formula (as a confessed non-math guy, it still needs to be refined by someone else). The concept was a system that bypasses the divisive issue of which tournaments (and tours) should matter more and returns to golf’s simplest question: What scores are players posting on which courses, and how does that compare to the scores posted by professional golfers in tournaments all over the world? Basically, I was suggesting a professional golf handicap, albeit one that factors in greatly the specific difficulty of the golf course setup and conditions, as well as other situational variables (like position in a tournament, etc.). If you want more details on it, again, read the story.

When first proposed, my handicap idea wasn’t entirely serious (at one point I light-heartedly used a ™, which our friends at the USGA did not appreciate), but the reaction to it has been.

After an initial wave of feedback on social media, I then solicited opinions from readers via email this week, and our editors’ inbox was flooded with responses. Many of those notes I sought to respond to privately, but given the overall passion and thoughtfulness of the reaction, I wanted to at least share a few.

Among the biggest takeaways:

The idea sorta makes sense!

I promise I will get to the part where people rightly poke holes in my thinking, but I was surprised how many people actually saw merit in the concept, especially its simplicity.

“This proposal is spot on,” reader Carl from Duxbury, Mass., said. “It is probably too logical to ever catch on. One strength of the proposal is that we could all understand it! Any serious golfer knows what an index is. I love it.”

From Karen: “First, kudos on thinking outside the box, and attempting to eliminate the bias that exists today in men’s professional golf! Whether you are a stalwart PGA Tour fan or a LIV guy, you should be able to look at this approach rationally and say ‘something like this could work.’”

Love or hate LIV, it’s a mistake to ignore it

While a faction of readers was adamant that the players who left for LIV were getting what they deserved (“They knew the potential consequences going into their decision, so let them go,” reader Phillip said), many recognized it’s more complicated than that, particularly if the major championships are impacted.

“LOVE this concept!” reader Kit wrote. “It makes perfect sense. … I miss seeing the ‘defectors’ play and this idea of yours gives back legitimacy to the major tournaments. Do whatever you can to push this forward!”

“I think that instituting something like this might diffuse some of the acrimony surrounding golf at this time,” Parmelee from Lake Placid, N.Y., wrote.

Reader Marsha, a 7.0 index, wrote: “To exclude LIV golfers ‘just because’ doesn't seem right, although I admittedly am not a fan! They should be able to retain their world golf ranking with a watered down version of points as you suggested. I will be anxious to see if your idea gains any momentum.”

Reader Alan: “I don't really care how it's solved; I just want any pro golfer to be able to play any pro tournament they qualify for based on skill. Whether they qualify should not be based on ‘the particular tour’ they belong to.

From Ted: “Your rationale is quite sound and with some tweaking provides a way for the major tours to perhaps settle their grievances and co-exist in the golf world. We all want to see the best players play head to head in the majors afterall.”

Now time for the fine print

Of course, it’s one thing for a plan to resonate in a vacuum, but when applied to reality, it gets messy in a hurry. A consistent note of the feedback received was essentially, “this could work if you can just figure out (blank) and (blank).” All fair.

The biggest question seemed to be about my “Adjusted Course Rating” that attempts to calculate setup difficulty; and what I dubbed it the “Situational Difficulty Index” that accounts for things like the magnitude of a round and the pressure a golfer faces based on their position.

From Brian in New York: “At the end of the day the question becomes how do you compare the Event Handicap from one event to another? This is where the subjectivity is needed, as you have suggested. One’s performance at the Masters cannot be compared to one at the Great Abaco Classic. There has to be a degree of difficulty as part of the input. How that is accomplished is the key to your concept and its greatest challenge.”

From Ron: “The ranking needs to incorporate all of their tournament rounds over a longer period. But that suggests that a consistently good player who doesn’t win could be higher in the ranking than someone who gets hot and wins a couple of times a year, maybe important tournaments, but also misses cuts. Or one who has the luxury of only concentrating on a few important tournaments and is not trying to make a living by playing a lot of events. Which is more important?”

“Your proposal doesn't seem to take recency into account.,” reader Hugh noted. “Over what period are scores measured and do more recent scores have a higher impact? The OWGR system takes this into account, but perhaps not to the extent that it should.”

There were other comments like this, plus others who said it was way too complicated and not worth the time. I appreciated those, too.

I don't know if the Pro Handicap idea will ever progress beyond an editorial concept, but it's at least triggered plenty of discussion. I'll keep working on it, and if you have any ideas, you know where to find me.