For now, the threat of the upstart LIV Golf series seems to center around a seemingly endless supply of money that it can throw at prospective players. But there is one thing the Saudi-backed tour currently does not have, and likely needs, to disrupt professional golf further: Official World Golf Ranking points.
LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman said the upstart tour backed by Saudi Arabia and offering huge purses, plus bonuses for signing up, has applied for OWGR points. More than two dozen tours are integrated into the OWGR universe, and LIV Golf seeks the same authentication. It’s a long shot, and the history and mechanics of the OWGR offer clues to the challenges confronting Norman’s enterprise.
The Official World Golf Ranking debuted in April 1986, but arguably the most momentous event in its history—and probably the most consequential in the current chaotic environment that is professional golf—occurred in 2004. IMG founder Mark McCormack had died the previous year, and in due course the administration of the men’s ranking system passed from IMG to an entity known as OWGR Limited. Seven organizations, the prime stakeholders in men’s golf, founded this institution. That group consisted of the PGA Tour, European Tour, International Federation of PGA Tours and the organizations that run the men’s major championships—Augusta National Golf Club, the PGA of America, the R&A and the USGA.
The forerunner of the OWGR was something McCormack created in 1968 and which he published annually in his book, “The World of Professional Golf.” The rankings he compiled, at first based primarily on earnings, took into account results from golf tours around the world but served no specific purpose such as shaping eligibility in major championships. That changed in 1986 when the R&A adopted McCormack’s system to help it determine exemptions for The Open for golf’s top players. The PGA Tour got on board in 1990 with what was then known as the Sony Rankings, and by 1997 all the major tours recognized the system.
Fast forward to 2004 and Alastair Johnston saw a problem. The new co-CEO of IMG was increasingly uncomfortable with the thought of IMG continuing to oversee the rankings. After all, IMG managed dozens of golfers, including perennial World No. 1 Tiger Woods.
“The rankings had become incredibly important with the respect to the landscape of golf,” Johnston recalled this week. “It was tied to exemptions for the majors and World Golf Championships and bonuses in equipment contracts, etc. etc., and we couldn’t be seen as having a conflict of interest and be exposed to potential legal liability that we could be favoring our clients in some way.”
Eventually, a deal was struck, a commercial arrangement in which the consortium of tours and major organizations became the proprietor of the rankings in exchange for certain financial reimbursements related to maintaining the system and continually updating the formula. “There was a lot of trial and error for the first 20 years or so and a lot of complaints as a result,” Johnston said, “and the one thing that I don’t hear anymore is noise about it being biased or unfair.
“Today, you can make the argument that it has become everything.”
Today, the argument over the direction of professional golf seems to hinge on the rankings. In the confrontation between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf, which has poached several of the tour’s more recognizable names—among them Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka—the OWGR represents the stamp of legitimacy for the ne enterprise that for now can be dismissed as a collection of exhibitions.
The OWGR question looms large, and thanks to sponsorship from the Asian Tour, LIV Golf has applied for OWGR points for its 54-hole events. DeChambeau, a former U.S. Open winner who joined LIV two weeks ago, told reporters at the U.S. Open in Boston that LIV Golf “has got that covered” in regard to OWGR accreditation.
Overconfidence? Or a foreshadowing of things to come? Time will tell. Here are some of the more pertinent questions about the OWGR and its outsized influence on the current proceedings as the LIV series moves to Portland, Ore., for its second event next week at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club.
Why are OWGR points important to players who compete in the LIV Golf Invitational series?
The OWGR is one determinant for eligibility into golf’s four major championships. At the moment, several players who have moved over to the new tour are exempt into majors solely based on their respective world rankings. Others have exemptions as past champions, such as Masters winners—at least for the time being; Augusta National hasn’t decided if it will continue to invite its winners to compete. If LIV golfers can’t earn points, their rankings will slip and eventually they will lose their entrée into majors, which could diminish the league’s allure, no matter how massive the purses.
The OWGR operates out of the DP World Tour offices in London and is run by a governing board consisting of many of the founding tours and major championships. That means that among the board members are Jay Monahan (PGA Tour), Mike Whan (USGA), Seth Waugh (PGA of America), International Federation of PGA Tours official Keith Waters, Martin Slumbers (R&A), Keith Pelley (DP World Tour) and Buzzy Johnson (Augusta National). It is chaired by Peter Dawson, former chief executive of the R&A. In other words, stakeholders in the status quo are in control here.
There have been constant changes to the algorithm that determines how points are distributed to come up with the ranking of the world’s best men’s golfers. Currently, without getting too far into the mathematical weeds, a player’s World Ranking is based upon accumulating OWGR points over a two-year rolling period. The number of points is determined by his finishing position in a tournament and that tournament’s strength of field. This system has a flaw in that its strength of a field includes artificial valuations and doesn’t accurately reflect the value of the 5,000-plus players eligible for points.
But isn’t the formula about to change?
Strangely, it’s a pure coincidence that the timing of a major change to the computing of the World Ranking arrives in just a few months after three years of research. Again, it’s best to boil it down to the fact that on Aug. 14, the World Ranking of each player will be calculated using a new “strokes gained world rating” based on actual scores in stroke-play events adjusted for the relative difficulty of each round played. That rating impacts a tournament’s field rating, which in turn determines the number of points distributed to players making the cut. (In the previous system, players who made the cut might not collect any OWGR points.) The new system is designed to better evaluate the skill level of every player in a tournament. It’s not likely to have a dramatic impact at the top of the rankings or even among the top 50. Real changes won’t be realized for two years.
What is the process for applying for OWGR points?
LIV had to be sponsored by another member tour, in this case the Asian Tour, with which it is aligned. Norman said LIV applied, but the OWGR wouldn’t confirm that, and the process is a mystery. “The OWGR does not comment on the application process, nor on any applications it may or may not have received,” Ian Barker, chairman of the OWGR Technical Committee, told Golf Digest.
What are some potential sticking points in the LIV application?
It is believed that the OWGR would have trouble weighing results in LIV Golf’s 54-hole format that features a shotgun start. That alone could be reason enough to not include the series in the OWGR. Another could be its limited field of 48 players, though PGA Tour events with fewer players—like the Tour Championship and the Sentry Tournament of Champions—award World Ranking points. Limited-field tournaments are approved by the governing board on an individual basis. Then there’s the all-invitational aspect of the LIV series. Critics of the current OWGR argue that players invited to an exclusive series of events are automatically rewarded with ranking points, which skews the system.
What if LIV met all the criteria for inclusion? Wouldn’t that mean the board has to grant its approval?
Not necessarily. There are reports saying that the OWGR’s constitution gives the governing board latitude to approve or deny points whether an applicant meets all, some or none of the criteria it uses for such decisions. The board also can amend its list of criteria.
What tours currently are eligible to receive world ranking points?
Here’s the full list of tours in the OWGR system (via the OWGR website): Abema TV Tour, All Thailand Golf Tour, Alps Tour Golf, Asian Development Tour, Asian Tour, Big Easy Tour, China Tour, EuroPro Tour, European Challenge Tour, Japan Golf Tour, Korn Ferry Tour, KPGA Korean Tour, MENA Golf Tour, Nordic Golf League, PGA European Tour, PGA Tour, PGA Tour Canada, PGA Tour China Series, PGA Tour Latinoamérica, PGA Tour of Australasia, ProGolf Tour, Professional Golf Tour of India and Sunshine Tour.
How could it be that LIV Golf, with several major champions, won’t eventually join that large group and become an eligible golf tour?
Several longtime golf observers believe that it is inevitable that the LIV series will gain accreditation, though it might have to amend its current format. The two major players, LIV Golf and the PGA Tour, likely would have to learn to co-exist, though what that ultimately might look like in terms of schedules, major events and prize money is anyone’s guess.
Is the OWGR really that important to LIV Golf’s long-term success?
Just listen to Norman, who said in a recent television interview that, “OWGR points should be granted, and if we get the OWGR points, then everything else takes care of itself.”
Yeah, it’s a very big deal.
John Huggan contributed to this story.