I admit that for a long time, I was sceptical about the Official World Golf Ranking. I always thought it was strange that someone like Jon Rahm, who has four tour wins and whose best finish in a Major is 23rd, can in one year jump 135 spots and leapfrog Jordan Spieth, who spent the two seasons after his near-Grand Slam in 2015 winning five times including another Major.
Nothing against Rahm, of course. He’s a phenomenal player. It just seems a bit weird that Spieth can perform better than those around him and still slip down the rankings. He’s literally being punished by his own good play.
It’s still pretty odd, but now, I don’t care. I’ve moved on, because I’ve finally figured out what the OWGR actually is: it’s the most predictive – and therefore maybe the best – stat in golf.
The perfect Power Ranking
Most people know the basic outlines of how the OWGR works. Players accumulate points that slowly begin to evaporate during a two-year period, and are continuously being replaced by newly earned points. That makes the OWGR fantastically good at highlighting two things: which players have played well recently, and which players have shown consistent improvement over time.
It turns out, the combination of those two things is incredibly adept at clueing us into what might happen next.
Since 2013, 41 percent of regular-season US PGA Tour events have been won by players who came into the tournament ranked inside the top-15 in the OWGR. And because so many of golf’s best young talents have been successfully fulfilling their potential, that number has been trending up in recent years. In 2013 and 2014, when players like Spieth and Rory McIlroy were still fairly unseasoned, the percentage of tournaments won by top-15 players was 38 and 24 percent, respectively.
But it doesn’t stop there. Over the same time period a staggering 75 percent of Majors have been won by players who come into the tournament inside the top-15, which jumps to 85 percent when you measure Majors, WGCs and the Players Championship. The trend is continuing to hold true early this season, with top-15 players winning three of the five events to start off 2018.
Simply put, players who go into a tournament ranked inside the top-15 in the OWGR have an absurdly high win-percentage.
Predicting the future?
Take this week’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am as an example: there are five players coming into the event ranked inside the top-15. Recent history tells us one of those five players will end up winning almost half the time, and the other 151 players in the field account for the other half.
The more top-15 players there are in the field (like at golf’s biggest events) the higher the likelihood one of them will win, so if you’re betting on golf, you should basically be focusing most of your time on evaluating the small handful of very good players who happen to be playing that week. After all, it’s easier to pick one potential winner from a group of 15 than a group of 150 or more.
But more broadly, it speaks to a bigger trend in golf that most of us suspected but can now actually prove: that the game’s talent pool is insanely deep right now.
There is no one transcendent star. There’s not a big three, and there’s not really even a big five. In reality golf has closer to a big 30. A host of very good players who are constantly cycling in and out of the OWGR’s top-15 depending on their form, and are together vacuuming up tonnes of wins in the process.
Yes, the very best are slightly better than the others, but it’s more marginal now than it used to be. The days of Tiger, Phil and Vijay, or Jack, Arnie and Gary vs everyone else are gone. At least for now.
Nowadays, once you get into the top echelon, it’s basically one giant free-for-all.