In August 2022, a year from now, the system used to calculate the Official World Golf Ranking will undergo significant changes.
"While the Ranking has served men’s professional golf exceptionally well," reads an explainer provided to the media from the OWGR governing board this week, "analysis has revealed that by modernizing two components of the system, the Ranking could provide significantly greater accuracy while differentiating performances [i.e., rank] of all 5,000 players included in the system."
To understand the changes, it's necessary to understand how the system works now … which, for the casual fan, is not a given.
The current form of OWGR can be summarized as follows:
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 thought is complicated: There's a world rating chart (which takes 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 guide identifying 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.
5. Each player's total points are added, divided by his total events played, and from that, you have a World Ranking list.
What you may have noticed baked into point No. 3 is that the "value" of each tournament depends on where it's played and who is playing. In other words, your average PGA Tour event has always been more valuable than your average European Tour event, which is more valuable than an average event on any other tour. To give a recent example, from Week 30 in 2021, the winner of the 3M Open in Minnesota received 40 World Ranking points, the winner of the Cazoo Open in Europe received 24, the Korn Ferry Tour winner got 14, the Challenge Tour winner got 12, the Korean winner nine, the Canadian winner six, PGA Tour Latinoamérica six, and so on into the more obscure tours.
The relative strength of top-tier American golf is accounted for. However, there is still a modicum of "protection" for smaller tours based on minimum point variables. Those will be gone, and if you want an overarching headline from the new OWGR changes, it's this:
Starting next summer, the tournaments with the best players in the world are going to be even more valuable from a World Ranking perspective, relative to the rest, because of the relative value of the players themselves.
How much more valuable? That's tougher to say, but we can get closer to the truth by laying out the nuts and bolts of how things will actually change:
1. This is the big one: Instead of just OWGR points, which are static and assigned based on pre-set values, players are going to be measured by a second metric called Strokes Gained World Rating (SGWR). This will be based on "actual scores in stroke-play events adjusted for the relative difficulty of each round played over a rolling two-year period."
2. Also key: The SGWR score will determine the strength of each field, because each player will have "performance points" that he brings into a tournament based on the SGWR. The total performance points in an event will be known as a "field rating." These points will be up for grabs by the entire field, and those numbers will determine World Ranking.
3. The points available for each finishing position will still be set prior to the event. In other words, you can't win more points with a 15-shot win vs. a playoff win. (Though this will increase a player's SGWR, and thus the number of performance points he brings to the next tournament.) To do otherwise would be to simply measure the World Ranking by SGWR, and the powers that be are avoiding that to ensure that a premium is still placed on winning.
Meanwhile, the current two-year system, with diminishing values for old events as time passes, remains in a similar form.
The strokes gained concept developed by Mark Broadie and eventually embraced by the PGA Tour is being adapted to measure World Ranking, and in fact, according to Billy Schroder of the PGA Tour, Broadie has personally been "integral" in the adaptive process.
Dustin Johnson is the current World No. 2.
Today, rankings are determined by pre-set numbers based on assumptions about how a field would look. Under the new system, field rating is relative to recent performance. Where Cam Champ, the winner of this year's 3M Open, received 40 World Ranking points, the winner in the future could get more or less depending on whom actually shows up.
The advantage here is that you can measure performance in a more dynamic, distilled manner; no longer do you have to limit the measure of skill in a field to a set number of players, and now every player who makes the cut can earn a portion of the performance points available that week. Rather than laying out a baseline assumption that first place is X points better than second place under the old system of assigned values, you can now allot the points precisely based on the field that week. That is unquestionably good, from an accuracy perspective.
The potential disadvantage is creating, or at least exacerbating, a "rich get richer" situation, both in terms of players and tours. The case can be made that good results on an individual level will contribute to higher performance points in each event, which gives the world's best players more and more points to accumulate, to the point that they exist in a different statistical stratosphere than their counterparts in Europe and Asia. And couldn't you extrapolate from there that the same will happen on the tour level, with the PGA Tour especially benefiting?
The answer is, "maybe," but we have no idea how much, or if indeed it will be any different than the disparities we see today (which, you could argue, benefit non-American tours too much as it stands). The OWGR technical committee knows the answer, having run countless simulations, but in a press conference Tuesday they were careful to avoid answering any specific questions about the benefit to larger tours or how, in their simulations, the actual World Ranking of today would be different under the new system. The most we got in a written explainer is that they anticipate that the top 50 would be different by "2-5" players under the new system, while the top 10 would remain unchanged. But in terms of the strokes gained system benefiting the PGA Tour, this language from the explainer is interesting:
"To account for round difficulty—including differences in field, course and scoring conditions—a widely accepted statistical modeling calculation known as fixed effects regression simultaneously uses all scores in a two-year period to standardize all rounds relative to one another, providing the appropriate adjustment value necessary. A round with highly skilled players and challenging scoring conditions played on a difficult course will have scores adjusted down, while a round with lesser skilled players and more benign scoring conditions played on an easier course will have scores adjusted up."
It's easy to imagine that the highly skilled players will all cluster in one place, leading to a self-perpetuating upward spiral, perhaps leading to fewer global opportunities in the short term and further depletion of global tours in the long term. Nevertheless, the OWGR committee has anticipated that outcome and stated in its presentation that its analysis "ensured that consistent high-level play resulted in significant improvement in a player’s Ranking, regardless of which Tour he competes."
Here's the short answer for those worried about removing the World Ranking crutch that has propped up non-American golf under the existing system: We'll have to wait and see, but it will probably be fine.
There are nods to tradition here. Majors will still follow a baseline of 100 points awarded to the top finisher, and while "flagship events" are allegedly eliminated, the Players Championship keeps its status as the best of the rest, with 80 points going to the winner. Again, winning is at a premium, so you're not going to see a series of top-five finishes taking on greater value than more erratic play that results in an occasional win. (i.e., Tony Finau shouldn't be doing cartwheels right now.) Finally, because this is a rolling two-year system, even after implementation next August, there will be two years before rankings are entirely determined by the new method. There will be plenty of time to adust.
In short, this is a step forward from a mathematical perspective, and the only potential pitfall—which some would not consider a pitfall at all—is that in the noble quest for relativity, the slight bias toward non-PGA Tour golf may be eliminated, with whatever consequences that entails to world golf. We don't know for sure that this will happen, or how extreme it will be, but it's hard to imagine that the OWGR would implement any system that (for instance) significantly cut off paths to WGC events for foreign players.
They've run the numbers, everything they say makes a lot of sense, and until proven otherwise, the appropriate response here seems to be, sit back and trust the math.