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Here’s a question, sports fans.
What do Ryan Gerard, Frederic Lacroix and Isaiah Salinda have in common?
Answer: they’re amongst the 217 golfers currently ranked higher on the Official World Golf Ranking than Dustin Johnson.
Having spent a combined 135 weeks as world No.1 – the third longest reign of all time – the two-time major champion now languishes in 218th on the standings.
Jimmy Stanger, Chandler Phillips and Trace Crowe – they’re all ahead of him, too. Likewise, Justin Lower, Vincent Whaley, Hennie Du Plessis, Gaganjeet Bhullar… the list is long and not wholly distinguished.
It’s no secret how all this has come to pass. Johnson was part of the original group that defected to LIV Golf in June 2022, triggering an indefinite ban from the PGA Tour. With LIV’s OWGR status still both FUBAR and SNAFU, DJ has, according to the rankings, made only six starts since then: the US Open and Open in 2022, and all four major championships last year.
And I don’t know if you’ve ever tried this but maintaining a ranking from just six starts in 30 months is not easy. (FYI, and because I know you’re all wondering, Johnson made the cut in five of those six starts, posting two top-10s in the process).
Of course, what the OWGR isn’t telling you is that Johnson has made 23 other starts in that time, winning twice and posting 11 other top-10 finishes on LIV, the most recent of those coming courtesy of a tie for fifth in the season curtain-raiser in Mexico last week.
Now, I don’t profess to know precisely what all that is worth, but I do know this: it’s worth more than nothing.
Hang on a sec. What’s that noise? Do you hear it? Sounds kinda like the predictable combo of pearls being clutched and teeth being gnashed.
“They knew what they were signing up for.”
“I’m sure the millions he’s banking will be some consolation.”
Such angry riffs are, deliberately or otherwise, missing the point. This isn’t a lament for Dustin; it’s a reminder that the Official World Golf Ranking is broken. It’s either unable or unwilling to accommodate a new circuit containing several of the world’s best players – stop pretending they’re not, you’re better than that – and, as such, has become little more than a poorly arranged list of names and numbers.
It’s not fit for purpose, basically.
What is that purpose? Glad you asked because that’s the really important part.
According to its own website, “the mission of the OWGR is to administer and publish, on a weekly basis, a transparent, credible, and accurate ranking.” It’s certainly transparent – but credible? Accurate?
How can it possibly claim to be either when it would have you believe that Dustin Johnson has played half a dozen times in close to two years, when it is disregarding the fact that four of its current top-35 are playing on a circuit it is choosing not to rank.
Critics of LIV like to toss around words like ‘meritocracy’ and point to the myriad ways in which the league doesn’t conform to the sport’s established order. Of course, their arguments conveniently ignore the flaccidity of the ranking’s own rules – you can meet all the requirements and have your application rejected or meet none and be approved – as well as countless examples of limited field, no-cut tournaments that do get points.
It’s apparently not an issue when Tiger decides to host a pre-Christmas hit-and-giggle for pals in the Bahamas, an event where there were more points for finishing second in 2023 than for winning the Australian Open the same week. See also: the World Golf Championships.
Where that becomes an even bigger issue is when it comes to the majors. All four currently use the OWGR, to varying degrees, to construct their fields. But how robust are those fields going to be when the likes of Johnson, Tyrrell Hatton and Co. are no longer qualifying for them, not because they’re not playing well but because they’re playing somewhere the world rankings has no idea how to measure.
Hatton’s case is particularly compelling. He could win multiple times on LIV this year, top the individual standings at the expense of Brooks Koepka, Cam Smith, Jon Rahm and Bryson DeChambeau – and yet potentially feature in precisely zero major championships next year.
That’s the position Joaquin Niemann finds himself this year. The winner of the aforementioned Australian Open in December and triumphant in the inaugural LIV event of the season, he’s currently only eligible to play in the Open.
In the absence of the OWGR finding an equitable solution, it may fall to the majors themselves to introduce an exemption category for LIV golfers. A mini order of merit has been touted that would see the top-however-many players on LIV’s standings get an exemption into all four events the following year. That may well be the path of least resistance but, again, exposes the inherent shortcomings of the world rankings.
Other standings have demonstrated there is alternative way to rank the world’s top golfers, irrespective of where they play. Data Golf, for example, has a highly sophisticated algorithm that determines a ranking by averaging the field strength-adjusted scores of golfers on all OWGR-affiliated tours as well as LIV Golf and top amateur competitions, with recent rounds receiving more weight. For context, it currently has Dustin Johnson in 43rd place, which feels about right.
The Universal Golf Rankings (TUGR) is another alternative that is steadily gaining momentum.
All the while, the OWGR continues to wield power. Imperfect, discredited power.
People talk about it as though it’s some sacrosanct, unimpeachable system to which every form of golf must conform. It’s not. Before 1986, it didn’t even exist, for crying out loud!
For the sanctity of the game, it either needs to evolve or be left behind. And soon.
Michael McEwan is the 2023 PPA Scotland ‘Columnist of the Year’ and ‘Writer of the Year’
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