Rankings formula? It's complicated

November, 2, 2010

The Official World Golf Rankings are simple to understand, yet difficult to explain.

Trivia question

There's a possibility that after one week, Lee Westwood will lose his No. 1 ranking. Before this week, Westwood's first week atop the rankings, who was the only player to hold the No. 1 ranking for a single week? (Answer below.)

They rely upon a complicated, rolling two-year formula that evaluates tournaments around the world based on field strength, and in turn, grades a golfer's performance in said tournament. A golfer's average performance, weighted chronologically, is given a numerical value and compared to his peers.

And as convoluted as that attempt at an explanation sounds, it's actually more complicated than that.

Yet, simply put, only one number matters to fans: 1. As in 1, Lee Westwood. Not Tiger Woods. Not Phil Mickelson. Not a major champion.

While team sports annually crown their best team, golf merely declares who was the best in the world that particular week -- whether it be at Augusta, Whistling Straits, or Bay Hill. One can make evaluations about who the best golfer of the year was (Martin Kaymer or Jim Furyk, for example), but there's no definitive, undeniable champion. Yet for five and a half years, one man was the best in his sport, based on this aggregating, long-winded system: Woods.

Since June of 2005, we've seen six different World Series Champions, four different teams win the NBA Finals, four different Super Bowl champions, five different teams hoist the Stanley Cup, and 14 different major champions in men's golf. And before Sunday, a single world No. 1 in men's golf.

That consistency atop the sport made Woods' descent from his perch newsworthy this week. Yet, in the coming months, there could be a battle for that top ranking essentially every week, all around the world. It can change in China this week at the HSBC, where four different men control their own destiny in terms of the world No. 1 ranking: Westwood, Woods, Kaymer and defending champion Phil Mickelson can all be ranked first in the world with a victory.

There are literally a countless number of different scenarios this weekend where these men can attain that distinction, but for now, let's break down the contenders of the moment for the world's top ranking.

Lee Westwood
World rank: 1
Worldwide wins last 18 months: 3
Career major victories: 0

Westwood (who was 266th just 7 years ago) and his ascent to No. 1 is a testament to several things. One, of course, is consistency. Westwood is the only player in the world to have finished in the top three in four of the last six majors -- and one of those, he didn't even tee it up (missed the PGA Championship this year due to injury). He has four official wins on the European Tour since the beginning of 2007, and an additional one on the PGA Tour. No one is questioning whether or not the Englishman belongs among the world's elite.

But is he the elite player on Earth? His rise to No. 1 is also a testament to what some golf fans and analysts see as a flawed system. Westwood is the top-ranked player in the world despite having just one victory on the PGA Tour, which is universally regarded as the top circuit on the planet. And that event he did win in Tennessee, held a week before the U.S. Open, didn't have Woods, Mickelson, future U.S. Open winner Graeme McDowell, Ernie Els or Furyk in its field.

In a sport most recognized during its four biggest annual events, a man who has never won any of them is now regarded as the game's best golfer at the moment. A fantastic accomplishment, clearly, but how long will he stay there?

Tiger Woods
World rank: 2
Worldwide wins last 18 months: 6
Career major victories: 14

With the HSBC Champions being declared an "official" PGA Tour event this year, Woods has one final chance to avoid his first winless season ever on the PGA Tour. Among the all-time victory leaders on the Tour, a winless season before turning 40 is not completely new. Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus and Billy Casper all went calendar years in which they started 10 or more events on Tour before turning 40 in which they did not win.

With that defense being made, it's impossible to justify Woods remaining atop the rankings if he isn't winning golf tournaments. Because the rankings system is based on a two-year average, Woods has been buoyed in recent months by the fact that he didn't play after the U.S. Open in 2008. Like a hitter on the disabled list who's average isn't affected because he's not getting at-bats, Woods wasn't losing as much ground as someone who just went winless for half-a-year while playing.

In January of 2011, Woods' world ranking will be based on a time period that emphasizes the 13 weeks leading up to that moment, and, overall, accounts for the time period from January 2009 until that point. What this in a nutshell means, is that if Tiger doesn't win soon, he's going to fall further, and fast.

Still, if he wins in China, he's back on top again. With one more week at the top of the world rankings, Woods would have reached 12 full calendar years as the top-ranked player in the world.

Martin Kaymer
World rank:
Worldwide wins last 18 months: 6
Career major victories: 1

If the system were ranking, right now, who the best golfer on the planet was, it would be nearly impossible not to deduce that the winner of that title would be Kaymer. Kaymer has won eight times since the beginning of 2008, six times in the last 18 months, and three times since the beginning of August. While the world anxiously anticipated Rory McIlroy's seizure of the title of golf's next young superstar, Kaymer went ahead and won the PGA Championship, and positioned himself to become the No. 1 player on Earth.

Kaymer had a slightly more prolific 2008 on the European Tour, with more total top-10's and one more runner-up finish, but the value of his accomplishments the following year are stronger. This should help him out moving forward in the world rankings by a small amount. With the way he's been playing though, it's not going to matter. No one will be shocked if he wins this week in Shanghai.

Phil Mickelson
World rank:
Worldwide wins last 18 months: 3
Career major victories: 4

The recurring storyline seemingly every week on the PGA Tour in 2010 was, "Phil just needs to do blank, and he'll be the No. 1 player in the world." As you know, every week, there was the same result. The idea of Westwood or Kaymer overtaking Woods has to be refreshing for some people fatigued by that same 'what if' that never seems like will happen. Still, Mickelson is right there -- a win, and he's the world's No. 1 for the first time.

Trivia answer

Question: There's a possibility that after 1 week, Lee Westwood will lose his No. 1 ranking. Before this week, Westwood's first atop the rankings, who was the only player to hold the No. 1 ranking for a single week?

Answer: Tom Lehman, who had it for one week in 1997.

Mickelson hasn't played since the Ryder Cup one month ago. A bad omen: the last time he took a month or more off was between the U.S. Open and Open Championship, and he finished tied for 48th there. Still, Mickelson is the defending champion at the event this week, and no one should short his chances to win it again.



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