SI debuts world golf ranking system that factors in LIV Golf

Sports Illustrated, in collaboration with Golf Intelligence, creates a system that puts more weight on recent performance and recognizes the results of all tours

LIV Golf Mayakoba — Cameron Smith
While players like Cameron Smith will have their LIV Golf performances factored into the new SI World Golf Ranking, they will receive a discounted weight based on the 54-hole format.

In April 1986, the Official World Golf Ranking (OWGR) was launched as an orderly points-based way to determine the world’s professional players, a growing number of whom were playing schedules no longer confined to the PGA Tour.

Since originally being known as the Sony Ranking, the OWGR is continuous work in progress as the methodology is tweaked to account for such things as the window of performance, strength of field, the weight of points distributed and new tours coming online.

While the OWGR is not the only golf ranking system ever to be created, it has become the most influential. The seven-member governing board includes the heads of the PGA Tour, DP World Tour, PGA of America, USGA, R&A, Augusta National Golf Club and
the International Federation of PGA Tours. And, the ranking points have become a criterion for entry into top-tier tournaments and majors.

In 2022, though, the OWGR came under heavy criticism when its managers refused to recognize fledgling LIV Golf. Limited fields and the league’s 54-hole format were the main reasons for not including its results.  

A case can be made that a player, such as Dustin Johnson, is being penalized for joining the new league. For example, Johnson ended 2021 at No. 3 in the OWGR and a year later had dropped to No. 41 despite three top-25 finishes in majors and easily winning LIV Golf’s individual championship.

Last week, Sports Illustrated, in collaboration with Golf Intelligence, debuted a new world golf ranking system that puts more weight on a player’s recent performance over a shorter amount of time, factors in format (whether its 18, 54 or 72 holes), a stat — distance per shot — that can be used for all tours and recognizes LIV Golf results.

SI Golf managing director Jeff Ritter joined The First Call’s Stuart Hall to discuss the new system in a wide-ranging Q&A about the SI World Golf Ranking.


The First Call: Would we be having this discussion had the OWGR just recognized LIV Golf and included the league's results into its ranking system from the outset? 
Jeff Ritter: Possibly, because flaws in the OWGR formula still remain. The OWGR was created by IMG as a way to rank and promote its golfers. OWGR has evolved, but it has always been a target because it’s crucial to many careers within pro golf. The launch of LIV Golf further brought the OWGR under a microscope. OWGR has attempted to evolve and made updates last summer, but it wasn’t enough — players on both the PGA Tour and LIV Tour continue to publicly identify concerns about the OWGR.

TFC: Give us the backstory for the SI World Golf Ranking. When did this project begin to take shape? Why is a new ranking system necessary? 
JR: It was shortly after Morning Read was acquired by Arena Group last fall and we joined the SI team — in fact it was discussed in our first edit meetings. The editorial team was just talking broadly about the current state of golf, and the idea of doing more to advance the conversation on how to evaluate current performance, as opposed to merely covering what people were saying about the rankings. We understand the flaws in the OWGR and saw an opportunity to build a better model. We’re journalists, not statisticians, so we found a data-driven partner in Golf Intelligence, led by Jim Stracka, the man behind the StrackaLine green and course reading guides. We brainstormed with Jim, who had already been ingesting and accumulating a vast amount of golfer and course data that we could leverage to help achieve our goal of a new ranking that was fully transparent with no bias toward or against any pro tour.

(Editor's note: Morning Read was previously owned by Buffalo Groupe, which owns and operates The First Call, before the Arena Group acquired it in September 2022)
TFC: Aside from the fact that OWGR does not include LIV Golf results and SI's WGR does, what are some of the other key differences between the two systems?
JR: We felt the OWGR’s tail of 24 months of event results is too long and doesn’t accurately account for the current state of play. When ranking golfers’ performance now, should we be considering who won the 2021 Players Championship all the way back in March 2021? (I looked it up, and it was Justin Thomas) So SIWGR focuses on the last 12 months of player results to better measure the best players right now, and it weighs the calculations so that the most recent four months of results count the highest, then it discounts results beyond four months and further discounts beyond eight months.

The SIWGR includes all pro tours around the world, including LIV events. Since most tours don’t have the resources to track strokes gained, that data isn’t available for many pro events. Our data partner, Golf Intelligence, created a variation of Strokes Gained called Distance Per Shot, which can be applied across all tours. The raw DPS number is just a total score divided by the total yardage of the course. Scoring a 70 on a 7,000-yard course would be a DPS of 100.

To account for different degrees of course difficulty, the formula also bakes in a “course adjustment” because not all rounds of 70 on 7,000-yard courses are created equal. Golf Intelligence has proprietary data on thousands of courses and actual player results that allocate points for better play on more difficult courses. Distance per shot is a new data point for the golf ranking community, but it’s a smart way to evaluate play, and as people study it, we think they'll agree. 

TFC: In rolling this out, SI published an extensive amount about methodology, an FAQ and the like. I found the explanation for why a 54-hole event, much like an 18-hole match-play round, should be considered in the formula to be rather interesting. And that's one of the arguments against LIV Golf, "Well, they only play 54 holes." Can you talk about that a little bit? 
JR: There are several pro tours around the world that stage 54-hole events, including LIV. Our formula does not penalize 54-hole tournaments, just like the OWGR doesn't penalize 18-hole match-play tournaments. But LIV events will ultimately be worth less points in our rankings because the SI rankings formula rewards events that have more top 100 players participating. For most events with a solid field, PGA Tour events will be worth more rankings points because their fields have more “Top 100” players. Also — and this is getting deeper into the calculations — the rankings include a divisor number (the total number of events played) into a player’s calculation. Golfers who play less than 20 events over 12 months will take a hit in the SI rankings. That’s not a LIV-specific penalty. Any golfer who’s injured or just plays a limited schedule would be weighed down on our list for playing fewer events. But the entire LIV season is 14 events, so for LIV golfers to max out their points in our system, they’d have to go find six non-LIV events to play each year. That may be tough for some of them.

TFC: This was done in partnership with Golf Intelligence, a golf data company with extensive research skills. What can you tell us about why SI collaborated with Golf Intelligence, and what input did SI provide into the building of this ranking?
JR: Golf Intelligence is led by Jim Stracka, who founded StrackaLine yardage and green-reading books. Golf Intelligence has granular data on thousands of courses and tens of thousands of player rounds. Their statisticians have a unique understanding of golf-related data, and how to measure that data clearly and consistently. They are brilliant and their knowledge of golf combined with data made them a perfect partner. We worked closely with Jim and his team of data specialists on the formula with a shared goal — to build something more effective and relevant than the OWGR, while also following a few tenets of journalism involving fairness, accuracy and transparency. Golf Intelligence helped get us there and are supplying the statistical experience and engines that will crank out the results each week.

TFC: Were there various iterations of this ranking before it was officially launched? Was there perhaps an earlier version where there was discussion that a particular metric was given too much or not enough weight?
JR: There were six months of discussions and iterations. We identified the 24-month tail of event results that the OWGR uses as an opportunity to create improved rankings. One of our goals was to create more immediacy, so the rankings reflect what's happening right now. This will create volatility, by design, because recent results are more impactful within the SI rankings. But we also attempted to avoid creating a hot-take list where whoever wins each week — even if they were previously in obscurity — somehow cracks the top 5. I think we ultimately hit the right balance.

TFC: For the sake of transparency, The Arena Group runs Sports Illustrated for its parent company, Authentic Brands Group, which also has the Greg Norman Company in its portfolio. Norman obviously is the CEO of LIV Golf, and he has been vocal about the fact that OWGR does not recognize his league. Were there any discussions with LIV Golf or go-betweens regarding this system? 
JR: With all of the conversation around world rankings, our team saw a tremendous opportunity to create a better model, so we began building SIWGR with our partners at Golf Intelligence. We didn’t consult with any tours or other entities. 

TFC: Are there plans to reveal more than just the top 100 each week?
JR: Yes, we plan to go deeper than 100 in the coming weeks and also feature a new interface with more functionality, clickable and sortable names with drop downs that show you a player’s results that correlates to their individual points total. We also plan to launch a women’s SI World Golf Ranking.

TFC: Now let's get to the good stuff. Dustin Johnson. Currently No. 54 in the OWGR, which many believe is laughable when he dominated the inaugural LIV Golf season. He debuts at No. 14 in the SI WGR, but many fans will say even that is too low. What do you say to them?
JR: The data speaks for itself. The model and formula objectively indicate he’s No. 14 this week. His points total was calculated via his performance during the past 12 months, with the competition that also played in his events, course difficulty, and DPS all appropriately factored in. Next week will be impacted by his play in this week’s event. Check back Monday to find out.

TFC: Strictly as a golf fan, when you saw the initial Top 100, were there any surprises where players were ranked higher or lower than you would have thought?
JR: Well, when we first ran it several weeks ago, Scottie Scheffler was number one. Jon Rahm only passed him for the top spot last week, which is also what happened in the OWGR. But there are numerous variances such as Hideki Matsuyama being lower in our rankings. So is Abe Ancer. Both of them are being propped up in the OWGR by hot summers in 2021 and, in Hideki’s case, a Masters win. Overall, we like the way baking more immediacy into the calculations came out.

TFC: Some will argue that such a ranking gives more legitimacy to LIV Golf. You say ... 
JR: As journalists we strive to be objective. If there are pro golfers competing in professional tour events, we'll use our formula to appropriately award them points. The OWGR does not. We treat all tours the same, but some factors, such as fewer top 100 players in the field, playing fewer events, and only awarding points to the top 75% for no-cut events, are things that work against LIV in our rankings and will require a LIV golfer to play extremely well to remain at the top of the SI rankings.

TFC: Lastly, at the end of the day, aren't rankings really just fodder for barstool discussions? 
JR: They absolutely are. Do you love them? Hate them? It’s all part of it. I’m happy to chat more about it over a beer.