What is it about sport rankings that creates so much hype and excitement?
We routinely see stories that say, ‘The Springboks have moved up/slipped to sixth in the world behind New Zealand’. Or, ‘The Proteas have moved to No 1 in the men’s ODI rankings’, or ‘Bafana Bafana have dropped to 81st in the Fifa rankings’.
And then social media goes into meltdown. So what? I’d rather have silverware, and trophies aren’t won on the basis of where you’re ranked. And rankings are flawed.
In golf, Justin Thomas signed off 2017 after a memorable season that featured five wins on the PGA Tour, including his first Major, The PGA Championship. He was deservedly named Player of the Year and when the calendar flipped over to 2018 he was third on the official World Ranking, behind Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth.
You’d have thought it was a fairly solid third, but after only one week into 2018 the updated rankings showed that Thomas had slipped to fourth, as the Spaniard Jon Rahm leapfrogged him, presumably on the strength of his second-place finish to Johnson at the Sentry Tournament of Champions – albeit beaten by eight shots.
Rahm is a special talent and yet another of this wave of twentysomethings – he’s only 23 – at the forefront of the sport. He surely won’t have to wait as long as his countryman Sergio Garcia to win a Major title – his first, and so far only such achievement coming at the 2017 Masters, at the age of 37 and in his 74th Major appearance.
After the first event of 2018, the rankings moved Rahm up to a career-high third place, and they are based on a complicated system. You’d need Donald Trump’s self-proclaimed genius to work them out and, admittedly, I am an intellectual dwarf compared to the US president.
This is how the rankings are arrived at, as per the official explanation:
‘Points for each player are accumulated over a two-year “rolling” period with the points awarded for each tournament maintained for a 13-week period to place additional emphasis on recent performances.
‘Ranking points are then reduced in equal decrements for the remaining 91 weeks of the two-year ranking period. Each player is then ranked according to his average points per tournament, which is determined by dividing his total number of points by the tournaments he has played over that two-year period.
‘There is a minimum divisor of 40 tournaments over the two-year ranking period and a maximum divisor of a player’s last 52 tournaments.’
Clear as mud then, and this explains why Thomas slipped from third to fourth one week into 2018, despite being the 2017 Player of the Year.
Of course, rankings are important, not only because the higher a golfer is placed, the easier it is to attract sponsors, but also to gain entry into tournaments – 50th in the rankings is ‘the number’, in that the world’s top 50 golfers automatically qualify for The Masters.
The wraparound season doesn’t make things easier, although professionals do place a level of importance on the rankings.
But, I ask the question: Would an individual, team or their fans prefer for them to be known as No 1 in the world, or for having won a football, rugby or cricket World Cup, a golf Major or a tennis Grand Slam?
If Tiger Woods had to choose, would he rather be known as the man who won 14 Majors, or the man who was at No 1 for a record 683 weeks?
I know which would be more important to me – and it’s not the ranking.
– This article first appeared in the February issue of Compleat Golfer