Monday, February 21, 2011

How the FedExCup can explain disdain for the Official World Golf Ranking

Golf is not a sport for mathematicians. It doesn’t require a degree in rocket science to be able to add, despite the body of evidence with disqualifications of many players for not adding right.

At one time – a distant time – knowing the best player in the game at any one time was easy. It was a combination of the player who had the most wins and had made the most money.

Now, though, the golf world is bigger in terms of money and sheer geography. Tracking the best player in the world in a tougher exercise. Two systems – one domestic, one global – dominate the conversation: the Official World Golf Ranking and the FedExCup.

Frankly, it’s only in the last 18 months that anyone seemed to care about the Official World Golf Ranking. When Tiger Woods was far and away the best player in the world, the OWGR confirmed that time and again (though, even then, it was in a flawed way). By and large, there was little need for scrutiny.

But the FedExCup was a different animal. Started in 2007, the points system was crushed from the start. The criticisms were numerous:

* It’s too hard to figure out the permutations.
* It doesn’t offer enough volatility.
* It’s basically the money list without points.
* Dear God, what if Tiger doesn’t win?!
* …and so many more.

Unlike the OWGR, which had already long since crowned Woods as the unquestioned ruler of the golf universe, the FedExCup had yet to successfully do that in 2007. Even when Woods won the first FedExCup that fall, critics were still laying into the system for its flaws – some of which are still apparent.

As the system has been modified twice of the four years of its existence, the criticisms have been from one of two camps: to identify the best, most consistent player; or from a camp of people who feel the playoff moniker should imply more volatility in the rankings from week to week. In that sense, the dual purpose of the concept has really hurt in shaping its identity.

Now, though, the Official World Golf Ranking is the target of similar complaining. And, the system clearly has some flaws – which we have discussed at length – but the OWGR is a necessary device in today’s golfing world. That’s true not just because the best player in the world currently is not readily apparent to anyone, but because the depth of talent in the world is such that there must be a system to identify the pick of the various litters around the world.

The Official World Golf Ranking, though, is tricky. Computing it requires more than addition. It takes some multiplication and division and subtraction. Depending on who you ask, some calculus, too. (Actually, it could.) An accountant wouldn’t hurt to have on retainer because of the points depreciation. It makes criticizing it tougher because offering a viable alternative – or series of changes – a larger exercise.

The overarching problem with both systems – the regular season part of the FedExCup and the Official World Golf Ranking – is the same, though. Both reward consistency too much. Admittedly, that’s desirable for some. Having a world No. 1 who has two non-silly season wins in two years but a bevy of high finishes is a lightning rod for the concept. (It’s easier to attack the top than the margins, which is where the biggest issues with the OWGR lie.)

What the FedExCup had to do was walk a double-edge tight rope – favor the likes of Tiger, who was the best, but also offer some unpredictability. Once Tiger left room for an understudy to take center stage, it seems like Matt Kuchar was embraced by some for being so consistent in 2010. For others, he was the subject of complaints that the state of golf without Tiger is one filled with parity. It might work for team sports, but parity in individual sports is just too much to handle. (Then again, NASCAR fans might beg for some of that parity juice right now.)

As for the OWGR, it must identify a best player while facing myriad issues that get in its way – uneven money, various forms of payola and the proliferation of foreign golf tournaments run by talent management agencies. Critics, like me, want it to promote the best of the moment while maintaining a close eye on its place as the gateway into majors and big tournaments. It faces a task it can achieve, but simply isn’t equipped to fully handle right now.

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