Golf Analytics

How Golfers Win

Bias in the Official World Golf Ranking

On Monday, I wrote about how Brandt Snedeker had just re-entered the top 50 in the Official World Golf Rankings after his win at Pebble Beach, earning enough points where he will likely be invited to all the majors and WGC events which use OWGR as a criterium for entry. Snedeker had fallen outside the top 50 – despite playing at a level that placed him around 30th in the world in actual on-course performance – largely because he hadn’t won since July 2013. He had slipped behind a host of European Tour golfers who had won on their Tour, but whose actual on-course performance was inferior towards Snedeker’s over the past two seasons. I’m going to go into a bit more detail about how the OWGR harms US based golfers, transferring exemptions into majors and important WGC events to lesser golfers from non-PGA Tour circuits.

Broadie and Rendleman (2012) went into a lot of detail about the bias inherent in the OWGR. A encourage you to at least peruse that paper. They basically rated all golfers from 2002-2010 using actual on-course performance and then compared those ratings to the OWGR. Their findings indicate that PGA Tour golfers are ranked significantly lower than golfers from the other major tours when controlling for on-course performance. Basically, the fields in non-PGA Tour events are systematically overrated, making a win in the Malaysian Open or Nordea Masters look more comparable to a win in a full field PGA Tour event.

This bias is starkly visible. Below I’ve plotted the percentage of rounds the golfers in the OWGR top 100 played on the European Tour in the past two years (2/2013-2/2015) and the difference between where both my rating system and the Sagarin/Golfweek rating system rank golfers and where the OWGR ranks them. For example, my rating has Brooks Koepka 33rd, while OWGR has him 19th. That is represented on the chart as +14. I’ve included the Sagarin/Golfweek numbers as they’re the best publicly available objective system to compare to.

mine vs owgr

sagarin vs OWGR

Note that most of the golfers who have played mostly on the European Tour appear above the origin, indicating they are rated higher in my objective system and Sagarin’s objective system than they are in the OWGR. This means they’re earning places into majors/WGC events which their performance doesn’t necessarily show they deserve.

What actually happens with the OWGR is it does not properly evaluate the strength of field. The way the ratings are calculated, even objectively very weak European Tour fields receive a minimum number of ranking points comparable to PGA Tour events. The ratings are also recursive, meaning that events receive credit for all top 200 OWGR ranked players who enter, which means overrated European Tour fields lead to overrated European Tour players which leads to more overrated European Tour fields. At no point is the OWGR designed to step back and ask in reality, how good is this field?

When you compare an average PGA Tour event (Zurich Classic) to an average European Tour event (Omega Masters), the difference in field quality is stark. I’ve plotted the number of golfers in nine different bins of quality, from elite (those -2.3 strokes better than average or more) to those who are awful (those +2.3 strokes worse than average or more).

omega zurich comp

So two very different fields. A good player would have a small chance of winning the Zurich (perhaps 2-3% for a player of Brandt Snedeker’s ability), while that same player would be one of the favorites in the Omega Masters (perhaps 6-7% to win). The catch is that the OWGR awarded 30 points to the Omega Masters winner and only 36 points to the Zurich winner. These differences continue all the way down the leaderboard, systematically awarding more points in European Tour events than for comparable PGA Tour performances.

The difference in field quality is reinforced when you consider all the events on each Tour – even ignoring the co-sponsored WGCs and majors. Ranking them side by side as below, the comparable European event has a field approximately half a stroke worse in overall quality than a similar PGA Tour event. Field quality is in terms of strokes better than an average pro (approximately the 200th best golfer in the world).

field quality PGA vs EURO

Combining the objective quality of field with the OWGR points awarded to the winner of each tournament produces the graph below. I’ve charted all 2014 PGA Tour, European Tour, and majors/WGCs. The best fit line is the amount of points each tournament should award if the points were solely based on objective quality of the field.

field vs owgr pts

Notice the cluster of events in the bottom left; those 15 tournaments have the field quality of Tour events while awarding an average of 22 points. The bias inherent in the OWGR largely stems from those 15 tournaments – mainly events in South Africa and Asia like the Malaysian Open, Thailand Classic, and South African Open which were played in the past two months. In fact, right now the OWGR is likely as biased towards European Tour golfers as it will get all year – just in time to award exemptions into the WGC event at Doral, the Masters, and the WGC match-play event.



9 responses to “Bias in the Official World Golf Ranking

  1. hughy February 18, 2015 at 6:39 PM

    load of rubbish. Sagarin rankings much worse than owgr.Jim Furyk ranked number 1. Completely discredits the whole system. Then again you probably believe Furyks better than Mcilroy.
    Stricker number 14. Do u want a ranking system which rewards retired players.
    Does 3 majors and wgcs in the states not make the rankings biased? It probably does because Im sure all ‘international’ players would play better if they could play at home every week of the year. Maybe half a stroke better.

  2. Bob Night February 18, 2015 at 10:59 PM

    If there are 32 better players in the world better than Brooks Koepka at the minute then your system is accurate!!!

  3. Gavin Greer (@GavGreer) February 19, 2015 at 10:59 AM

    Unless I am missing the point of the article, you are basing the better standard on the US tour on the scoring? That is fundamentally flawed as it is ignoring the uniform, repeptitive nature of the set up of the courses in the US, which are generally long but easy, to the variety of course layouts, locations, climates and set ups found on the european tour.

    There was a long time not too long ago that the world rankings were heavily slanted in the favour of the US tour as the players at the top of the rankings were from the US, they played mainly in the US thus meaning that the PGA tour events had a greater weighting for the rankings meaning the players playing those events had a greater chance of being higher up the world rankings and so the cycle continued.

    It is purely down to the improved performance of the euro tour players added to the WGC events that the world ranking tournament weightings are shifting away from the US tour.

    You only need to look at the trend of the ryder cup and the recent majors to see that the US players aren’t the best in the game after all.

    • jalnichols February 19, 2015 at 11:52 AM

      Your 1st paragraph has no absolutely basis in reality.

      Anyway, this absolutely isn’t about US vs. European players. It’s about US based vs. European based players. Brooks Koepka has been helped as much by the OWGR bias as Freddie Jacobson has been hurt. And it’s a consistent trend that’s been observed for over a decade now.

      • Gavin Greer (@GavGreer) February 20, 2015 at 8:45 AM

        I am well aware that it isn’t necessarily to do with europe vs US, that is the main reason I specifically said euro tour players and pga tour players. The reference to US players on the pga tour was a reference to days gone by when european tour players were limited to under 10 spots in he US based majors.

        My view on the courses has no basis on reality? Is it easier to putt on the same type of greens (US tour spec, if you will) cut to the same length, producing the same speed give or take an inch or 2, week in week out compared to variable putting surfaces, with varying grasses, some with grain, others without, at different speeds? I would suggest putting alone is going to be easier week in, week out.

        The PGA tour may go from hawaii to california, to florida to wherever but the courses are set up with similar width of fairways, similar cuts of rough with courses of similar distances. Why do you thing the bomb and gouge way of playing has become so prevelent? Except for, perhaps, this week at riveira, the masters, the open and to a lesser degree the US open, the pga tour plays the same form of golf every week.

        The european tour has the scottish open, which is now on a links course, completely different from the parkland layouts, playing at altitude in switzerland, desert golf (where the turf is significantly different from that on UK or european parkland courses). In india this week players are considering leaving out their drivers due to the course being so tight

        The standard may be better on the US tour but I am simply saying that, due to the nature and set up of the courses on the pga and european tours, it is a leap of faith, and somewhat naive, to base that decision on scoring alone.

  4. Richie Hunt February 24, 2015 at 1:15 PM

    The problem with the European Tour is it is HEAVILY geared towards the established players. I did research on the purse sizes not too long ago. IIRC, the PGA Tour purse sizes were obviously larger (roughly $6.5 million on average to $4 million on average in Europe). But, the variance in the size of the purse sizes was much smaller on the PGA Tour than the European Tour. So, if a player in Europe happens to be established and gets exemptions into the bigger event, they can play worse than a lesser know Euro Tour player and make far more money. Not as likely to happen on the PGA Tour.

    The same happens with many international players that first come over to the PGA Tour. They play far worse than their contemporaries, but because they are allowed to play in the big purse events they can keep their card after their first year despite playing poorly. Fortunately, it only lasts for 1 year instead of a 5 or 10 years which can happen on the Euro Tour.

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