Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The FGR Rankings Update

You know you're in the middle of golf's off-season when you turn on the Golf Channel at 2:00 p.m. on a Wednesday (I was "working" from home) and Steve Sands is reporting live in front of a driving range full of older guys that you spend a minute trying to recognize before one of them cold tops a 6-iron and you realize it's the hackers warming-up for the World Challenge Pro-Am. I have no idea what Sands was even talking about because I was mesmerized by the guy over his right shoulder with his head bobbing up and down as he hit shank after shank after shank. I finally yelled "keep your head still!" before switching to a rerun of Cheers on ReelzChannel (the one where they're debating the world's smartest animal . . . dolphin, chimpanzee, etc. and Coach goes with Francis the Talking Mule . . . classic).

Because nothing says
"European golf" like
the "Race to Dubai."
Anyway, they were still playing meaningful tournaments on the European Tour up until a few weeks ago when they completed their version of the FedEx Cup called the Race to Dubai (because, in addition to being a tad bit whorish for prize money, the people who run the "European" Tour are apparently huge Speed Racer fans). Not surprisingly, the winner was Rory McIlroy who capped-off the season by taking down the DP World Tour Championship, Dubai.* McIlroy started the final round tied for the lead with Luke "Coffee is for Closers" Donald and then beat him by five strokes.

Why does this matter? Because the Race to Dubai was the final event of 2012 to impact the FGR Rankings so it's time for an update.** For those who are new to the FGR's growing, yet still exclusive membership of readers, the FGR Rankings were introduced in April of this year in response to the "official" World Golf Rankings' (the WGR) formula which places way too much value on golf tournaments sponsored by farm bureaus and waste management companies and not nearly enough on majors and those tournaments that have fields worthy of majors (the Players and WGC events). The result was that Luke Donald and Lee Westwood were passing the title of "World's Best Golfer" back and forth despite the fact that neither one of them had ever won a major which was like arguing whether Charles Barkley or Karl Malone was the best basketball player of all time despite the fact that neither one of them ever won a ring. It was an outrage and something had to be done. (Well, at the very least, I was outraged . . . and something probably should have been done).
"And we're just the guys to do it."

So I devised a rudimentary scoring system that only counted the tournaments with top notch fields. Then I weighted the system to award more points to the recent winners before finally tweaking it to include the FedEx Cup and the Race to Dubai recognizing that success in those multi-tournament events should be acknowledged.*** Here are the standings as of today alongside the "official" World Golf Rankings:   

                FGR Rankings                           World Golf Rankings

1.
McIlroy
140
McIlroy
13.61
2.
Donald
91
Donald
9.28
3.
Bradley, K.
88
Woods
8.89
4.
Scott, A.
88
Rose
6.66
5.
Westwood
65
Scott
6.50
6.
Rose
65
Westwood
6.39
7.
Els
64
Oosti
6.35
8.
Schwartzel
62
Dufner
5.74
9.
Watson, B.
62
Simpson, W.
5.61
10.
Kuchar
61
Snedeker
5.56
11.
Hanson, P.
55
Watson, B.
5.39
12.
Dufner
53
Poulter
5.13
13.
Poulter
52
Mickelson
5.13
14.
Mickelson
49
Stricker
4.98
15.
Oosti
48
Bradley
4.90
16.
Simpson, W.
46
Watney
4.85
17.
McDowell
46
Hanson, P.
4.81
18.
Toms
46
Kuchar
4.79
19.
Woods
43
Johnson, D.
4.72
20.
Johnson, D.
39
Els
4.64









As you can see, Rory McIlroy's recent run of greatness has pretty much taken care of the problem that spawned this whole endeavor as he is now clearly the best player in the world regardless of how you calculate it. Over the past two years, he was won two majors, finished top 5 in three WGC events, won the 2012 Race to Duabi and finished second in the 2012 FedEx Cup. That discussion, for the time being, is over.

Certainly no shame in
being ranked 10-12
. . . on Maxim's list.
It starts to get interesting in the second spot where Luke Donald's margin has dwindled to 2 points and over half of his total are from tournaments played at the start of 2011 including 20 from the World Match Play. Those points will start falling out of the equation early in 2013 so look for Donald to drop into the 10-12 range by the time the next green jacket is handed-out.

But wait, it gets even more interesting (I know, I didn't think it was possible either). This most recent update again points out the major flaw in the WGR formula which is that using tournaments with weak fields erroneously elevates players who tend to thrive in those events. Three time John Deere Classic champ Steve Stricker continues to be the most overrated player in golf as he is ranked 14th in the world despite the fact that his tie for 7th at the 2012 PGA Championship was his first top 10 in a major since the 2009 Masters and he hasn't finished top 5 in a major since 1999. Meanwhile, the guy behind him in the rankings, Keegan Bradley, won the 2011 PGA Championship, backed that up by winning the 2012 Bridgestone and then, to prove that was no fluke, finished third the following week at the 2012 PGA Championship. (If I'm arguing that one in front of a jury, I'm pretty sure I've got at least ten of them nodding at this point so let's put the fact that the "official" World Golf Rankings are flawed in the "win" column and see if we can put them away for life without parole).
______________________________________________________________________

Critics of the FGR Rankings are quick to jump on the fact that Tiger Woods barely makes the top 20 and is ranked lower than David Toms. Does that highlight a flaw in the formula? Maybe it does because no one would argue that Toms is a better player than Tiger but again it goes back to how you measure one golfer against another (by height?). Consider this. If we made a bet at the start of 2011 on who would finish with more top 10's in majors, WGC events and the Players over the next two years and you took Tiger and gave me Toms, you would have lost 6-4. So that tells us that, over the past two years, when the best players competed against each other on the best courses, Toms outplayed Tiger. (That fact just got the skeptical juror wearing the TW hat to uncross his arms and start paying attention).

"1-9 and 1 . . . 1-9 and 1 . . . 1-9 and 1"
And then there is this. Recently at the Ryder Cup we had twenty-four of the best golfers in the world going head-to-head over three days on a major caliber golf course under the most intense pressure the game has to offer. The U.S. team had three players on its roster who are ranked higher than Keegan Bradley on the World Golf Rankings but way lower on the FGR Rankings - Tiger, Stricker and Brandt Snedeker. Bradley went 3-1 with his only loss coming in a singles match that went 17 holes against McIlroy, the undisputed best player in the world. The three players ranked ahead of him in the World Golf Rankings went 1-9-1 with Stricker going 0-4. (That's the "back and to the left . . . back and to the left" part of my closing argument so just let that hang in the air for effect . . .).
______________________________________________________________________

So we know that the FGR Rankings were backed-up by Keegan Bradley's performance at the Ryder Cup but what if I told you that using the FGR Rankings could have averted the disaster at Medinah? Would that be something you might be interested in?  While we're having all kinds of fun with lists and numbers, here is my favorite. Below is the U.S. Ryder Cup team ranked by the FGR on the left and the WGR on the right using the last updated standings from before the Cup with each player's record in the foursomes and four ball matches (get ready for some sabermetric mojo):

                   FGR Rankings                             World Golf Rankings

1.
Bradley
(3-0)

Woods
(0-3)
2.
Watson
(2-1)

Watson
(2-1)
3.
Kuchar
(2-0)

Simpson
(2-1)
4.
Woods
(0-3)

Dufner
(2-1)
5.
Simpson
(2-1)

Snedeker
(1-1)
6.
Dufner
(2-1)

Stricker
(0-3)
7.
Johnson, D.
(2-0)

Johnson, D.
(2-0)
8.
Mickelson
(2-1)

Bradley
(3-0)
9.
Stricker
(0-3)

Kuchar
(2-0)
10.
Furyk
(1-1)

Mickelson
(3-0)
11.
Snedeker
(1-1)

Johnson, Z.
(2-1)
12.
Johnson, Z.
(2-1)

Furyk
(1-1)










European captain Jose Maria Olazabol employed the novel strategy of giving his best players more playing time. (Pretty clever). Out of 44 potential starts, his top two (McIlroy and Rose) played 5 matches, his next six played 4 matches (Donald, Poulter, Westwood, Garcia, Colsaerts and McDowell), the next two played 3 matches (Lawrie and Molinari) and the bottom two played 2 matches (Hanson and Kaymer). Some don't favor that strategy because they argue that the guys who play 5 matches will be fatigued by Sunday and those who only play 2 matches will be rusty. We can dispense with the "fatigue" argument as McIlroy and Rose both won their singles matches on Sunday and the "rusty" argument is almost as weak because Kaymer beat Stricker in the pivotal match. So it would appear that golf is not that different from other sports where winning teams tend to (a) identify who their best players are and then (b) give them the most playing time (this is also known in some circles as "not rocket science").

Sounds like a job for the WOPR.
Armed with that strategy, it would seem to make sense for a Ryder Cup captain to play his top 8 players in all five matches and leave his bottom 4 on the bench until they had to play on Sunday. All he would have to do is figure-out his top 8 big game players and then pair them with guys they like to play with (short straw would have to play with Tiger which begs the question of why Tiger is even on the "team" but that's a topic for another day).**** I would argue that a ranking system based on results from tournaments played against top competition on tough golf courses would be a strong indicator of who will play well in the Ryder Cup but don't take my word for it. Let's prorate the actual results from Medinah to simulate what would have happened if the top 8 had each played in all four matches on Friday and Saturday, and then run those numbers using the FGR and the WGR to see which yields the best result (you're going to be shocked).

Remember that (a) we need to remove the singles matches from the equation because the whole team plays singles so there is no substitution strategy on Sunday (and I would argue that there is not much strategy at all considering it's a blind draw) and (b) there are more individual points than team points because in the foursomes and four balls, both players get credit for the points. So there were 32 points to be won on Friday and Saturday and the U.S. team won an impressive 20 of them. Give Davis Love, III some credit there because if he had weighted his line-up using the WGR, they would have only won 18 points. On the other hand, if he had played the FGR top 8 in all of the team matches and only played the bottom 4 of Stricker, Furyk, Snedeker and Z. Johnson on Sunday, the U.S. would have won 24 points out of a possible 32 points on Friday and Saturday and would have come into Sunday with a nearly insurmountable 12-4 lead (see prorated points below and I know a player could not win 2.67 points but those three players would have combined to win 8 points).

                   FGR Rankings                      WGR Rankings

1.
Bradley
4
Woods
0
2.
Watson
2.67
Watson
2.67
3.
Kuchar
4
Simpson
2.67
4.
Woods
0
Dufner
2.67
5.
Simpson
2.67
Snedeker
2
6.
Dufner
2.67
Stricker
0
7.
Johnson, D.
4
Johnson, D.
4
8.
Mickelson
4
Bradley
4
9.
Stricker
0
Kuchar
0
10.
Furyk
0
Mickelson
0
11.
Snedeker
0
Johnson, Z.
0
12.
Johnson, Z.
0
Furyk
0
24.01
18.01

So in summation, am I saying that the FGR rankings are not only a superior method for ranking the world's top golfers but that they also could have made the difference in the outcome of the Ryder Cup? No I am not. I am saying that they absolutely would have made the difference in the outcome of the Ryder Cup.

In case God forbid you don't
know who Mike Eruzione is.
Look at it this way. On Saturday afternoon, Phil Mickelson allegedly asked to sit-out despite the fact that he and Keegan Bradley were a wrecking ball of a team that had just beaten Luke Donald and Lee Westwood 7&6 in the morning. Love was already sending-out the teams of D. Johnson/Kuchar, Watson/Simpson and Dufner/Z. Johnson so with Mickelson out, the only remaining guys in the FGR top 8 were Tiger and Bradley who, late on a Saturday outside of Chicago, would have been the most electrifying pairing in Ryder Cup history. Instead he benched the guy who had become golf's answer to Mike Eruzione and went with the winless Tiger/Stricker combo again and, not surprisingly, they lost what many would argue (including me) was the most pivotal point of the competition.

If Love had used the FGR Rankings and maxed-out his starters, Stricker wouldn't have played until Sunday so an 0-3 Tiger/Stricker team never would have happened. It's not Stricker's fault that he and Bradley played the same number of matches (which would be like giving LeBron James and Shane Battier the same number of minutes in the NBA Finals). It's probably not Love's fault either because he was working with lousy data and a "team" of players that he felt compelled to give equal playing time to so no one's feelings would get hurt. Let's just hope that the next U.S. captain has the guts to employ the FGR's aggressive strategy. And if you're dismissing this whole argument as an exercise in outrageous speculation, ask yourself whether pairings made-up of Tiger/Bradley, Tiger/Dufner and Tiger/Kuchar would have done better than three rounds of Tiger/Stricker and then remember that they couldn't have done any worse. I rest my case.    

Endnotes

* And yes, the word "Dubai" is actually in the name of the tournament. Between all of the skyscrapers and the need to insert its name everywhere, I'm starting to think Dubai's trying to compensate for . . . I'm going to stop there before I wander into Salman Rushdie territory.

** Actually, we are way overdue for an update but it literally took me two weeks to get through the final round of the WGC-HSBC Champions event because of (a) the NFL, (b) the election coverage and (c) Homeland. The fact that I was able to go two weeks without knowing who won the HSBC simply by not watching the Golf Channel is a pretty good indication of what a non-factor golf becomes on the American sports landscape after the end of the Tour Championship.

No Golf Channel for two weeks? Oh
the sacrifices I make for the FGR.
*** Here is a link to the explanation of the basic FGR Rankings point system - The FGR Rankings. We have since added the "Darren Clarke Rule" which states that a player must earn points in more than one qualifying event to be eligible and the "Jason Day Rule" which allows me to remove a player from consideration because he has effectively taken the year off. (Day would have been 14th in the current rankings thanks to his second place finishes at the 2011 Masters and U.S. Open but, after wasting the 4th pick in my 2012 fantasy draft on him, he is dead to me).

****  The Americans generally take more of a "7 year old girls little league soccer" approach and evenly distribute the playing time with everyone getting at least 3 but no more than 4 matches. Oh yeah, they also talk a lot about "resting" players . . . in golf . . . a game most of us play to "rest."