The Official World Golf Ranking ushered in a new format this week, the culmination of a four-year-long process to reimagine an adequate but flawed system.
This is no small tweak. The rules of how points are awarded have changed significantly, and the impact of this revamped ranking could be the core defender of LIV Golf’s challenge to the game’s ecosystem.
The start of this complicated equation begins with the OWGR, golf’s universally recognized ranking system since the week before the 1986 Masters. It was created, ironically, because players started splitting time between Europe and the U.S, a factor which did not jibe with the Open Championship’s qualifying system. The R&A used to award spots strictly by a player’s standing on each respective tour, so some who split their time were failing to qualify despite being accomplished players.
Agent Mark McCormack, who had individually published his own rankings from 1968 to 1985, was appointed chairman, and the organization he founded, IMG, owned the OWGR until 2004. That’s when Alastair Johnston, IMG’s new CEO, recognized a conflict between his agency that represented players and what the OWGR had become – an ever-more-valuable ranking that served as a gatekeeper to major championships and sponsorship dollars.
It was then that golf’s major stakeholders came together to form OWGR Limited, a company with an office in the DP World Tour Building at Wentworth in London. With former R&A CEO Peter Dawson currently serving as chairman, the seven member entities contribute financially to the company’s operations while also serving on its board. That board includes the organizations that run each major, the PGA Tour, DP World Tour and the International Federation of PGA Tours.
That is an important backdrop as all of this unfolds.
The OWGR has gone through many changes over the years, so this latest install is far from being the only one. It is poetic, however, that the OWGR made this announcement on Monday, one day before the PGA Tour won a TRO (temporary restraining order) hearing that excluded three LIV players from participating in the FedEx Cup. The timing was awkward but coincidental, since this week’s install date was set more than a year ago. While the PGA Tour and LIV are now mired in an antitrust case that is likely to overlap with at least a few, and perhaps a handful of major championships being contested in the coming years, the thread being pulled on this ugly sweater seems to end with LIV’s desperate need for OWGR points.
LIV is hoping to break open a free market of golf where players can openly compete where they wish – except, of course, for the mandatory events their own members are contractually obligated to play. This free market wouldn’t include the majors, however. All four of the most coveted events are not operated by the PGA Tour. Each has its own qualification system that relies heavily on the OWGR.
All four of the most coveted events are not operated by the PGA Tour. Each has its own qualification system that relies heavily on the OWGR.
Some LIV players are qualified for certain majors based on past accomplishments, but those without exemptions face a mountain of hurdles to qualify via their world ranking. Without OWGR points and a path for players to reach the majors – this isn’t even to mention that many player sponsorships are attached to the ranking – LIV’s long-term viability has serious question marks.
They need to find a way to be included. It’s monumental enough that LIV frontman Greg Norman has pleaded for PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan and DP World Tour leader Keith Pelley to recuse themselves from the application process.
The first obstacle for them is the most obvious. LIV officially applied for OWGR certification on July 6. But unless there is a sudden and dramatic change in OWGR rules, the earliest the league could start earning points is 2024. Even that timeline appears optimistic for multiple reasons. The first is that the OWGR takes around one to two years to process applications. The second is that LIV does not meet several criteria that the OWGR lists as mandatory to be considered, and all of those criteria would have to be in place for at least one year prior to the application being accepted.
The OWGR has long asked that tours have a 36-hole cut, play 72 holes (developmental tours are exempt from this rule), carry an average field size north of 75, and stage qualifying to gain entry into both the tour and each individual tournament. Prospective tours also need to hold at least 10 events, which LIV plans to reach next year with a 14-tournament schedule. Tours also have to play by the Rules of Golf – so it’s unlikely you will ever see LIV bypass potential equipment rollbacks.
There is a 10-person Technical Committee on the OWGR that is responsible for working with LIV to try to address some of the shortcomings. This is a standard process for every application. Once those issues are addressed, the OWGR board will consider the application.
It’s expected that LIV will try to leverage the Asian Tour, the already OWGR-sanctioned tour which they own, to meet some of the criteria. They could also try to use relegation as proof of a qualifying system. However, these could both pose a problem because the Asian Tour is sponsoring LIV in their OWGR application, which is the opposite of how normal professional golf feeder systems work.
The second pitfall is how the OWGR will affect LIV players in the short term.
The OWGR has long been based on two-year windows with significant weight being added to recent results. Without accruing points, LIV players are set to drop in the rankings. And it won’t take much time at all. Projections show that it’s possible no LIV players could be in the top 50 by the end of this year. There could easily be none in the top 100 by the end of 2023. The majors could take no course of action and watch the majority of LIV golfers fall by the wayside. At the same time, some majors like the Masters could tweak their qualification system to add more non-LIV players to the field while trying to stop LIV defectors.
And then there is the revamped system itself. The new format will gradually show its effects each week as the old system slowly filters out, a process that will take two years. It’s impossible to know exactly what will happen moving forward, but it seems heavily in favor of the PGA Tour and heavily against LIV.
- The OWGR is now the end result of a metric called the Strokes Gained World Ranking. The SGWR is a measure of a player’s score against the relative difficulty of how everyone else in the event fared each day. The concept is similar to strokes gained statistics used by the PGA Tour, and strokes gained inventor Mark Broadie is a part of creating this new metric. The key difference is that the SGWR is adjusted for strength of field across all tours, so players get more points for playing against other top players. These SGWR’s are combined at each tournament and that becomes the strength of field points being divided that week. There are some early issues with the SGWR system that will likely be sorted through naturally over time. For instance, amateur Chisato Takamiya is currently the No. 8 player in the SGWR because he recently shot three low rounds on the Japan Tour. Cameron Young, the No. 17 player in OWGR and a recent runner-up at the Open Championship, is ranked No. 40 in SGWR because of a few bad rounds in the U.S. Open and Genesis Scottish Open. Tom Kim, who just won the Wyndham Championship, is not even in the top 60 of SGWR while ranking No. 21 in OWGR.
- This new system includes every player in every field. The old OWGR only awarded points based on how many of the top 200 players in the world were in the field, or how many high-ranking members of a tour came to play. A top-heavy event with four of the top 10 in the world could have a high strength of field even if there was a lack of depth behind those players. This new format effectively crushes any hope that an Asian Tour event could be stacked with LIV players, because the back portion of the field would severely weigh down the points awarded. It would likely require a player winning several of those tournaments to see any adjustment in their OWGR.
- Previously, limited-field events were awarded points based purely on the number of top players competing. For instance, the 38-man Sentry Tournament of Champions awarded 62 points to winner Cameron Smith this past year because of the relative talent in the field. Now, strength-of-field is only derived from the collective SGWR of every player in a field. The more you have, the higher your number could potentially be (outside of the majors and Players Championship which have set amounts). If the same 38 players were to play the Tournament of Champions under the new format, Smith would get about half the amount of points he did last year. In other words, all limited-field events are at a disadvantage. The OWGR uses this phrasing on its website: “Consider two tournaments, one with 70 players and another with the same 70 players plus an additional 30 players. It should be expected that the second tournament – the one with 100 players – is statistically more difficult to win than the first, and therefore should award more Ranking Points.” From the LIV perspective, their 48-player format is at an even further disadvantage.
- The PGA Tour may not be getting as many points from limited-field events, but they are likely to at least come close to maintaining their overall points. While that happens, tours across the world are now less protected than they ever have been. The DP World Tour, for example, used to have a minimum “home tour rating” of 24, which was an effective minimum points awarded to the winner even if the strength of field didn’t warrant it. This week, the FedEx St. Jude Championship is sending 67.4 points to its winner, which is the lowest amount a champion has received for winning the first FedEx Cup playoffs event over the past decade. Still, the DP World Tour’s ISPS Handa World Invitational is only giving 8.2 points to its winner. The Asian Tour’s International Series Singapore, which includes LIV player Patrick Reed, is only giving out 7.4 points to its winner – roughly half of what this week’s Korn Ferry Tour winner will receive (14.7). This is a more accurate reading of who is showing up to the event, and the PGA Tour pool of top players could effectively feed itself to the point where only tour players can achieve a high ranking. It could more accurately reflect the tour’s current stranglehold in talent (based on OWGR), filtering out non-PGA Tour players from qualifying for majors. Of course, if LIV players are allowed to play on other tours, their path to raising their OWGR becomes even more arduous.
There will be a lot to process in the coming years as LIV hopes to eventually find its way to OWGR membership with a realistic path of its players gaining points. Many have reasoned that LIV will inevitably bring legal action against the OWGR because it could be argued that the organization has horizontal agreements with each of its members to safeguard against threatening tours.
We’re not there yet, though. For the foreseeable future, we will be waiting to see just how ironclad the OWGR can be and what effect it will have on pro golf’s increasingly uncivil war.
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