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Golf's World Ranking is more trouble than it’s worth

March 06, 2024
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Michael Reaves

The math behind the Official World Golf Ranking has been refined at various times in its four decades of existence, although the changing equations miss the point: You can’t quantify the incalculable. Ranking golfers is not for computers, and it’s not science; it’s a subject best saved over pints. In turn, the problem with the OWGR has nothing to do with its merit in bar rooms but the importance it has gained in boardrooms, and the past two years have underlined that the World Ranking has become more trouble than it’s worth.

The OWGR has been under assault from LIV Golf for the Saudi-backed circuit’s failure to receive accreditation as the league plays out its third season. Without OWGR points for its events, LIV’s players have found their place in the rankings plummeting, which in a vacuum doesn’t really matter much beyond bruised egos. But the OWGR is a primary avenue to fill major championship fields—an awfully sore subject for the LIV folks. Just as importantly, the OWGR’s stiff-arm of LIV fuels the stigma that the league is more exhibition than competition.

Those collective frustrations culminated this week in LIV Golf rescinding its OWGR application, an about-face that seemed akin to a “You can’t fire me, I quit” move. It’s easy to downplay the cries of a group that didn’t get what it wanted (or was unwilling to take the consequences of their actions). But now those on the opposing side in golf’s civil war—including Xander Schauffele, Matt Fitzpatrick and Will Zalatoris—have raised similar issues about the OWGR’s relevance in the game. Given they are the ones benefiting from the current system, it does beg the question if said system is broken.

“I don’t really look at them or pay attention to them anymore. I don’t think they’re right," Fitzpatrick said this week at Bay Hill. "So I look at Data Golf as a better representation of how people are playing in the world, in my opinion. I think it’s partly a sign that there’s plenty of depth on here, which we’ve known that for years on the PGA Tour, there’s always been a lot of strength and depth, but I certainly think nowadays the ranking side of it is a little bit skewed.”

To be clear, this is not an endorsement of LIV's OWGR vilification. LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman assured his constituents that LIV would get World Ranking points when the question was far from certain, and players should've known better than to take Norman at his word. They whined when the one-year process wasn’t expedited, and who can forget the desperate attempt to partner with the MENA Tour to siphon the little-known tour’s OWGR points only for the workaround to be immediately shot down. The OWGR subject has become such a weekly complaint from LIV that it borders on parody and is nothing more than a self-defeating exercise, because the moment you assert why you matter is the moment you prove the opposite.

In that same breath … why does the MENA Tour have point accreditation? Same goes for the Hero World Challenge, a hit-n-giggle of 18 players. Should winners in lesser-ranked tours in South Africa, Japan and South Korea get more points as a player finishing 10th in a major championship? Then there’s LIV itself. Yes, much of its league is filled with golfers past their prime or players who were they still playing the PGA Tour would be dubbed rank-and-file. It’s a closed-off competition with just 54 players per event. Talor Gooch, he of one win in more than 120 PGA Tour starts, turned into a world beater once defecting. Peter Uihlein was a talented amateur who struggled to keep his PGA Tour card, only to finish third in LIV’s individual standings during its inaugural year. The OWGR’s questions about LIV’s competitive integrity are valid.

Still, LIV boasts a dozen formidable talents, arguably the best player in the game in Jon Rahm and a reigning major champ in Brooks Koepka. To grant zero World Ranking points for what’s done in LIV seems unfair, and a World Ranking that features a tumbling Rahm, Koepka, Cam Smith and Bryson DeChambeau is an incomplete representation of professional golf. There’s something to be said for the OWGR not changing its rules to appease LIV’s undeserved sense of entitlement … but that rigidness to the rules has likewise made the OWGR obsolete.

Worse, the World Ranking has become political in a game already saturated with divisiveness. Because the OWGR is comprised of the major golf circuits, along with the governing bodies—many of which were named in LIV’s antitrust lawsuit against the PGA Tour—there’s the perception that the World Ranking is another example of LIV being blackballed by the establishment (even with many of those organization’s leaders recusing themselves from the LIV decision). That is only amplified by the fact that those same governing bodies (Augusta National, the USGA and R&A specifically) use the World Ranking as a criteria for their championship fields.

The thing is, the World Ranking isn’t needed. The governing bodies—which, again, are essentially, the OWGR—can distance themselves from the World Ranking by using other standards and measures to build their fields. The top 50 from the FedEx Cup, the top 20 from the Race to Dubai, and the top 10 in each ranking of the current season not otherwise exempt. Expand open qualifying spots, and invite the Order of Merit winners of the Sunshine, Australasia and Japan circuits. And, yes, give LIV’s season-long individual champion a spot; that doesn’t seem like too much of an ask. Should there be a LIV player who demonstrates value outside that window—such as Joaquin Niemann has done over the past three months—the majors have shown they have no qualms using special invites/exemption to round out their fields.

Abolishing the OWGR because of LIV may seem like a surrender from the rest of the sport. In reality, golf’s schism has provided the chance to evaluate everything in the professional ecosystem, and identify what’s really needed, what’s lacking and what likely should go. Ranking golfers should be a fun exercise, not something put into practice. LIV’s complaints about the OWGR’s existence are based on the wrong rationale, but overall, the complaints are probably right.