Over the past two years, golf has become my favorite spectator sport. I have never played it. I can’t tell you the difference between an iron and a wedge. I definitely can’t tell from a player’s swing whether the ball’s more likely to land on the green or in the woods somewhere. I suppose I’m approaching the sport completely backwards from the vast majority of people who take interest in it.
No, I have zero technical knowledge of golf. When I was growing up my family watched the Masters every year, and my best efforts to ignore it amounted to all I ever experienced of the game prior to two years ago. Then, maybe for tradition’s sake, maybe as a complete fluke, I actually tuned in and paid attention to all four rounds of the Masters in 2010. I had no idea who Phil Mickelson and Lee Westwood were, but watching them battle for the win turned out to excite and entertain me as much as any football or hockey game I’d witnessed. The U.S. Open came and went before I ever realized that there were four big tournaments each year, and then the British Open finally hooked me for good.
I haven’t missed a day of the four majors since, but it was the players that dragged me in–the confidence, determination, ease under pressure, and extraordinary patience it took to compete in a major tournament. McIlory’s triumphal return after choking in the Masters, Clarke’s late-career comeback in the face of personal tragedy, Westwood’s ability to stay cool despite having come just short of victory so many times, that aura of greatness that surrounds Tom Watson everywhere he goes–that’s why I fell in love with golf. I’m only slowly learning how it all works after the fact. The physical techniques don’t interest me that much, but it’s time I started to get a feel for what professional golf consists of beyond the four majors.
I figured the logical place to start would be the official world golf rankings, but the data provided there looks pretty wild at first glance. Take Luke Donald, the current top-ranked player in the world. I know relatively little about the guy–he hasn’t stood out enough in the majors I’ve watched for me to really take notice of him. But he’s number one by a pretty big margin. The data, which can be found here, looks like this:
Pt.s Avg.: 10.41
Tot. Pts.: 551.71
# of Evts.: 53
Pts. Lost 2009/10: -181.07
Pts. Gained 2011: 422.21
The gist of it is pretty simple. You gain points based on your performance in events. Donald has 551.71 points over the course of 53 events, making his average points per event 10.41. This is the number by which he is ranked.
Simple enough. The other two columns are what threw me for a loop, and my confusion turned out to be well justified after reading more about the calculation process. No math is going to get you from the Pts. Lost and the Pts. Gained columns to the Tot. Pts. column; They aren’t directly relevant statistics. Here’s what’s really going on:
The # of Evts. column is the total number of events a player has participated in which can award points in the past two years from the current week. That is, not in the past two seasons, but in the past 104 weeks. Points from events diminish over time beginning with the 14th week, in order to give higher precedence to current performance. So let’s say you win the Masters. That’s worth 100 points. For 13 weeks, those 100 points will be included in your Tot. Pts., from which your average is derived. On the 14th week they begin to diminish. So 104 weeks minus 13, that means, as I understand it, for the next 91 weeks you will lose about 1.1 points from your total, until the value of that Masters win eventually reaches 0.
The Pts. Lost 2009/10 column is an oddly worded category, since you can lose points earned in 2011 as well. It should (and elsewhere does) read Pts. Lost 2011. It really means points lost due to diminishing values in the 14 through 104th weeks as of the start of the 2011 season. With that in mind, if Luke Donald has 551.71 points right now, gained 422.21 this season and lost 181.07, he must have ended the 2010 season with 310.57 points. And that he did. So this column is a mildly abstract way of tracking a player’s improvement between seasons. The result is a chart that simultaneously measures success over a 104 week period and performance in the two most recent calendar years.
Of course, the ultimate ranking is derived by dividing total points by the number of tournaments participated in, and this opens a whole new string of questions. In order to rank at all, a player has to have participated in 40 tournaments in the past 104 weeks. The maximum number of tournaments is in the process of changing, but by January 1st will be 52. That is, once you’ve competed in your 53rd tournament in 104 weeks, the results of your earliest tournament in that timespan will be dropped. It’s the minimum of 40 that intrigues me though. It begs the question of qualification for recognized events.
Let me shift focus to Tiger Woods. Currently ranked 44th, his world ranking stats are:
Pt.s Avg.: 3.03
Tot. Pts.: 121.02
# of Evts.: 40
Pts. Lost 2009/10: -239.66
Pts. Gained 2011: 45.42
If you watched the PGA Championship, you can’t have missed the commentary on Woods. By failing to make the cut, he dropped out of the top 125 points leaders for the 2011 season, and that is the qualification standards for the FedEx Cup. This cup consists of four tournaments and is currently underway. Since Woods can’t compete, did in 2010, and currently sits at 40 events, I gather that a week from yesterday he will cease to be a ranked golfer.
Digging into the consequences of that, I found that the standards to compete in an average tournament aren’t so high once you’ve got tour membership. Tiger Woods, as I understand the qualification process, is already a lifetime member of the PGA Tour. With the exception of a few tournaments with specific demands, like those of the FedEx Cup, I’m pretty sure a PGA Tour member is eligible to enter any tournament in the rotation, with the available slots going in the order of priority listed here. In other words, whatever all Woods’ fall has cost him, it’s not going to prevent him from playing with the other pros if he wants to.
In the process of verifying that, I found some other links of interest. Phil Bundy, a middle-aged fellow on a mission to play on the PGA Tour, wrote up some informative articles on 5 ways to become a member of the PGA Tour and How to qualify for a PGA Tour event without a membership. They answered a lot of my residual questions.
I’m still a little thrown off, because pgatour.com’s official list of active members includes a number of names not on the exemption chart I just linked. To this I found no clear answer, but it might just be that the active list isn’t as up to date as the exemption list.
At any rate, my last questions return to the topic at hand. Sure, players gain points by performing well in tournaments, but how many options do they have, and what exactly determines how many points a tournament can provide? The second, third, and fourth ranked players in the world aren’t even on the PGA Tour, so there’s got to be a lot more to it than that. A quick glance across wikipedia will show you just how extensive the opportunities for ranked matches can be. The PGA Tour alone includes 49 events this year, and while it might be the most prestigious tour, it is still only one of twelve from which a golfer can earn points. The European Tour stands almost equal in its number of matches and potential rating values, followed by the Japan Golf Tour and PGA Tour of Australasia, then the Sunshine Tour (South Africa), Asian Tour, and Nationwide Tour (USA), then the Challenge Tour (Europe), and lastly the Canadian Tour, OneAsia Tour, Tour de las Américas, and Korean Tour. Not all are quite so large, and each has its own method for attaining membership, but generally speaking there are a lot more opportunities out there to participate in matches that factor into the World Golf Ranking than I’d thought.
The last bit of math we have to do to figure out exactly how players move up the ranks–how many points a particular tournament can award–involves Total Rating Values. I googled this term and golf and got 8 results, so perhaps there is a more common phrase used than the official one, but all you really need to understand it is the pretty thorough breakdown provided on the Official World Golf Rankings website. This looks pretty complex at a glance, but it’s actually really straight forward, and while you might need a calculator and a lot of free time to figure out how the points will break down for a given tournament, the necessary data is all quite accessible.
The most important thing to note on this chart is that Total Rating Values and Ranking Points are completely different sets of numbers. A tournament’s Total Rating Value determines which Ranking Points column it will fall into. If a tournament has a rating value of 35, for example, the winner will earn 14 ranking points, second place will earn 8.4, and so on. There is a minimum column for each Tour and Premier Event, but theoretically any tournament willing to open its doors to the top 200 players in the world can have a Rating Value of 925, and if the top 30 in the world all happen to be part of that Home Tour–were they all, for example, PGA Tour members in a PGA Tour event–the tournament would have a Rating Value of 1000. A 1000 Rated tournament is thus entirely possible but completely unrealistic.
The World and Home Tour Event Rating Values listed on the bottom of the first page are what give you the tournament’s rating value. As you can see by the breakdown, each tournament’s Rating Value goes up based on the number of high ranking pros participating. The top ranked player in the world, just by participating, adds 45 points to an event’s Rating Value. If the event is on that player’s home tour, the second smaller chart’s value is added on top of it. So Luke Donald adds 53 rating value to any European Tour event he attends. The effect this has on how many actual ranking points are awarded to each position diminishes the higher up the Rating Value gets. For example, adding 32 rating value points to an event that would otherwise have zero (if say, a Canadian reached world #3), would bump the ranking points awarded to the winner from 6 to 14, whereas in an event that would otherwise have a 556 rating value, adding 32 makes no difference at all.
Here are some other examples in case it’s not clear. Even though a Canadian Tour event can have a minimum Rating Value of 0, if Luke Donald was eligible and willing to participate it would be bumped into the 41-50 bracket. If Westwood joined him it would already be up to the 76-90 bracket. So if that was it–Donald, Westwood, no one else but players under 200 in the world rankings–the winner would take home 22 ranking points. This is the number that’s divided by a player’s number of tournaments to create their average, the final determiner of their world rank. If, on the other hand, not enough high ranking player participated to bump the tournament out of that 0-5 column, the winner would take home 6 (so long as we’re still talking a Canadian Tour event.) If it was a PGA Tour event and the entire world top 200 decided to sit out, the winner would still gain 24.
Note that an event’s Rating Value always starts at 0, not at the minimum. The minimum only comes into effect if the combined total of all world rank-derived Event and Home Tour Rating Values of participants fails to exceed it. (Thus if Donald and Westwood were the only players in the top 200 in a European Tour event, its rating value would not be the minimum (91) plus 97. It would be just 97. These minimum values come more into play in “Alternative” events. An Alternative event takes place at the same time as a Regular event, designed for players who couldn’t get into the Regular. An Alternative event’s Rating Value is cut in half, so the minimum pretty much always kicks in.
The big exceptions to these (and thus the most important matches of the year ranking points-wise) are the four majors and the Players Tournament. The majors each have a fixed value of points awarded by position independent of Rating Value, and the Players’ minimum is set to the maximum possible–the 906 to 1000 column, making its point distribution likewise fixed.
This might all sound like a bunch of useless detail to you, but I’ve had an interesting time figuring it all out. It’s nice in any sport to see a big list of numbers and be able to tell what it all means, and golf rankings are a bit less straight forward than the fantasy football stats I’m used to reading. It’s taught me a couple of other things too: that the Players is decidedly the fifth most important tournament of the year, and that if you’re really wondering how important a given tournament will be for the World Golf Rankings, you just have to look at who all’s playing in it.
Well, there you have it.