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Tiger Woods, Lee Westwood and the Controversy Over No. 1

Kathy BissellCorrespondent INovember 9, 2010

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 09:  Golfer Tiger Woods arrives at Essendon Airport on November 9, 2010 in Melbourne, Australia. Woods will play in the JBWere Masters event this week in Melbourne.  (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)
Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

Kathy Bissell

The Great and Powerful Oz of the World Golf Rankings has finally spoken. 

Ian Baker of the European Tour, who calculates the rankings weekly, answered criticism by Butch Harmon, who insisted Martin Kaymer deserved to be No 1, not Lee Westwood.

“If we just prepared it on the points won so far this year, Woods would not be in the top 50 and Martin Kaymer would be comfortably the world No. 1," Barker, told Reuters earlier this week.  

But of course, that’s not the way they do it.

We don’t know why they arbitrarily settled on two years, although it used to be a three year average, which was even harder to figure out.  It was really impossible to unseat a No. 1 player when it was three years.  Most sensible people today agree that two years is too long and one year is about right, but still, the rankings people are set on two years. There’s no way to move them.   

In the ranking points, for those who love them, Westwood has a total of 415.534, and that number divided by the number of tournaments he played in the last two years, 47, gives him a higher average than any other player, 8.841. 

“The rankings come as a consequence of playing well, and I'm playing well and I know I am,” Westwood said at the HSBC Championship. “I know that I haven't won a Major Championship. I'm very well aware of that. But I do know I've probably played the most consistent golf in the world over the last two years, and that reflects in my World Ranking.”

Tiger Woods, now holding down the No. 2 slot, has 328.480 and played in 40 tournaments over the last two years, for an average of 8.212.  

Martin Kaymer actually has more points than Woods, with 381.957, but he played eight more tournaments, than Woods, with 48, and so his average points are lower at 7.957. He needs either fewer tournaments than 48 or better finishes in the ones where he plays to move up.  Or he needs to drop some bad finishes.

Earlier this year, Phil Mickelson actually had more total points than Woods, but the rankings are an average, and he had played more tournaments thereby getting a lower average. 

It is not easy to determine how many points a winner of a tournament will get in advance because the points can change with the quality of field.  For instance, if all of the top ten in the rankings show up, the rankings officials decide that tournament is worth more, while a tournament such as this week’s PGA Tour event is worth less because the top ranked players are not present. A victory this week in Orlando, therefore, is not equal to a victory in Shanghai where higher ranked players will be.  At least that’s part of the explanation.

Then there’s some system by which points from two years ago are “degraded.”  They are reduced in value by some system that theoretically accounts for the time elapsed since the points were earned.   If you understand this next bit, explain it to the rest of us.

“The World Ranking Points for each player are accumulated over a two year “rolling” period with the points awarded for each event maintained for a 13-week period to place additional emphasis on recent performances—ranking points are then reduced in equal decrements (of 1/92nd of the original amount) for the remaining 91 weeks of the two-year Ranking period.”  

(http://www.officialworldgolfranking.com/about_us/default.sps?iType=425)   

Regardless of the methods and questions over the methodology, Westwood now tops the list.

Going forward, Martin Kaymer will lose points beginning the third week of January because he won the 2008 Abu Dhabi Golf Championship, unless of course, he wins it.  Lee Westwood finished second there in 2008, and so he will lose fewer than Kaymer, but unless he finishes in the top two spots, he will also drop points. 

Tiger Woods, who seldom plays in the US before the event at Torrey Pines or the Accenture Match Play, loses points for the 2008 victory in Dubai in January unless he travels and wins it.  If he doesn’t win the Accenture Match Play, he will drop points from that event in 2008 also. So he could potentially take a bigger slide by early March if he does not improve his finishes.

Those point-changing possibilities are three months away, and it will take that long for a massive change in the rankings unless Woods, Kaymer or Mickelson win significantly in the interim. 

Of the top four, Kaymer and Mickelson play next week in Singapore, and good finishes could help while poor finishes could hurt their standing. 

Westwood is taking the week off, assuring himself of holding his No 1 spot for at least one more week, and then he heads to Dubai for the season-ending championship.

Woods was at a skins game in Thailand this week, and then, he headed to Australia to defend his title in the JB Were Masters.  His 2009 points are still active.

In terms of holding on to his points, Westwood retains his 2009 major second place finishes through the end of next summer, so don’t look for him to fall significantly until the end of next year even if someone else starts winning. He may be overtaken, but he will not lose much through the next 12 months.

Of the top four, if one had to predict who would take the top spot next, the nod has to go to Tiger Woods, despite the way he has played in 2010, and then to Kaymer, should he do well in Dubai and then in January.   Those from fifth to 10th—Stricker, Furyk, Casey, Donald, McElroy, McDowell—would have to emerge with multiple victories or playoff losses to near the top spot.

Typically, a No. 1 player has won a major, and that is the aberration with Lee Westwood.  The rankings web site lists those who have been No. 1 over the 24-year period that the rankings have been computed. All are major winners: Bernhard Langer (three weeks), Seve Ballesteros (61 weeks), Greg Norman (331 weeks), Nick Faldo (97 weeks), Ian Woosnam (50 weeks), Fred Couples (16 weeks), Nick Price (44 weeks), Tom Lehman (one week), Ernie Els (nine weeks), David Duval (15 weeks), Vijay Singh (32 weeks) and Tiger Woods, who has been No. 1 before and in between Duval and Singh, (623 weeks).. For those who like to do the math, that’s 11.98 years in total that Woods has held the top spot.  Pretty strong stuff, no matter what happens in 2011.

Maybe the upshot of this whole rankings discussion is that the highest ranked player may not be the best player at that time. And the best player right now may not be No. 1.  That is because the rankings are a lagging indicator, not a leading indicator.

The best player may be the hottest player or the one who has been on a streak for six months or nine months, like Jim Furyk with three victories in 2010.  Does that make him the No. 1 player? 

Most people would say that Furyk is a world class player, routinely a top ten player, but few would say he’s the No.1 in the world right now.  Ernie Els had a great spring, but two or three months do not make him No. 1 right now, either. 

So to determine a No. 1, we need to ask, are we looking for Mr. Right or Mr. Right Now? 

When we know the answer to that, we can determine the real No. 1.

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