World Golf Ranking has unified world's tours
There was no trophy or ceremony to anoint Bernhard Langer as golf’s first World No. 1. Backup shortstops on losing Little League teams receive more hardware than Langer did on Sunday, April 6, 1986, when the first Official World Golf Ranking was unveiled.
Arnold Palmer at the Masters
Take a look back at Arnold Palmer in the Masters tournaments over the years.
Better players preceded Langer – no one was going to mistake the defending Masters champion for Hogan, Palmer or Nicklaus – but their superiority had never been quantified. It wasn’t until that Sunday preceding the ’86 Masters that the question “Who’s No. 1?” could be answered objectively.
“It was very needed because we never had a global ranking in our sport,” Langer said. “There weren’t too many occasions where the best players in the world played against each other, so it was difficult to determine who was the best.”
The PGA Tour money list served as a de facto world ranking during the days of Palmer and Nicklaus. By the early 1980s, there was an increasing number of globetrotting international stars. Because these players spread themselves across several tours, they struggled to qualify for majors that based exemptions on money lists.
The rankings were little more than a talking point when they were first unveiled, though. Tony Greer, the ranking’s founder, jokes that his creation “landed like a lead balloon” in the U.S. because the top three players – Germany’s Langer, Spain’s Seve Ballesteros and Scotland’s Sandy Lyle – were European.
In a quarter century, the ranking has metamorphosed from toxic to gilded. Stewart Cink recently called one’s presence in the top 50 golf’s “golden goose.”
The British Open, which invited the world’s top 40 players in 1986, was the only major to grant exemptions off of this new system. Now the world’s top 50 are exempt into the first three majors (the PGA Championship doesn’t have a specific OWGR exemption, but traditionally invites top-100 players not already exempt) and the three of the four World Golf Championships. The ranking also is used to determine teams in the Ryder and Presidents cups, and eventually the 2016 Olympics, when golf returns to the Rio Games after a more than 100-year absence. Ranking points are often discussed in the same breath as dollars and euros.
Even in the late 1990s, when Cink first cracked the top 50, he thought it was a nice accomplishment, but little more. Crossing that threshold now is worth hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars.
Jack Nicklaus at the Masters
Take a look back at Jack Nicklaus in the Masters tournaments over the years
Consider that a player could’ve finished last in the first three World Golf Championships of 2010 and still earned $120,500. Most endorsement contracts contain incentives based on a player’s ranking. One agent said a player can earn anywhere from 20 percent to 70 percent more endorsement money by finishing in the top 50.
“Fifty is probably the biggest number of them all, really,” said Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell, the reigning U.S. Open champion.
The money at stake has made the Official World Golf Ranking one of pro golf’s most influential institutions, one that at times determines where and when players play, and how much they earn.
It’s a long way from the OWGR’s beginning, when Greer, a civil engineer, created the ranking as a recreational activity. He used to receive tournament results by fax and calculate rankings “on the back of my hand.”
The R&A sanctioned that first ranking, the only governing body to do so, in order to maintain the British Open’s strong international field. International Management Group, the behemoth that represents many of the game’s top players, managed the ranking at its inception.
At a 1997 meeting at Turnberry in Scotland, IMG ceded control of the Official World Golf Ranking, which became an independent corporation. A governing board, consisting of representatives from all four majors and the world’s major tours, also was formed.
The U.S. Open first exempted players off of the World Ranking in 1998. Augusta National followed suit one year later.
A comparison of this year’s Masters field and the one that competed in 1986 shows how the ranking has helped globalize the game. There were 15 foreign players at Augusta National in 1986, and only four Europeans. This year, 53 of the 99 invitees (not including the Shell Houston Open champion) are from outside the United States. Twenty-six are European.
“If they had a World Ranking back in the early 80s, I probably would have played in a few majors earlier in my career,” Zimbabwe’s Nick Price said. “It was very, very hard to get into majors when I was 23, 24, 25. You had to win a tournament to get into the Masters, or you had to go and qualify for the British Open and the U.S. Open.”
The ranking’s offices are located within the European Tour offices at England’s Wentworth Club to give the ranking a central global location. This year, the ranking began awarding points to the Tour de las Americas, meaning every continent – minus Antarctica, of course – now has a tour that receives ranking points.
Just like the BCS or any other ranking, the Official World Golf Ranking has endured its share of criticism, but there’s no denying its importance.
“I don’t know if it’s a good thing or bad thing,” South Africa’s Ernie Els said of the ranking’s heightened influence, “but that’s the way it is.”