Posted by: happyfan08 | August 26, 2010

Those Darn Rolex Rankings!

Who is the best women’s golfer in the world? For years, the only answer you could give to that question was, the woman who is the top player on the LPGA tour. There was no official way to compare the records of top golfers on different tours to determine who might be better than the other. Occasionally the top golfers would come together in big events like some of the Majors, but even there, the tournaments would be on home turf for some golfers and foreign turf for others. Just because a Japanese or Korean star did not excel at a tournament in the States did not mean she was not a great golfer.

Jiyai Shin is the first Korean golfer to ever attain the #1 ranking

To remedy this situation, the Rolex World Rankings were introduced in 2006. Rolex has kept the actual formula it uses to calculate a player’s rankings a secret, but there are some things we do know. Wins, obviously, help you a lot, and wins in Majors help you more. The results from the last two years are kept in the database, with older results dropping out of the system. As a result gets older, it gets progressively less valuable, although the rate and degree this happens is part of the mystery of the rankings formula. The tour the player is playing also makes a difference, with a win on the LPGA being considered the most significant, and other tours less so.

Naturally, there are many opinions as to what should be more important in a great player. Is someone who wins a lot but otherwise plays not so well a better player than someone who contends a lot but rarely or ever wins? How would you compare a player like Ji Young Oh, with two LPGA wins but not many top tens, to a player like Song Hee Kim, who seems to achieve top tens almost every time she tees it up, but who has yet to win? What about a player like Yani Tseng, who has four career wins, three of which are Majors? Is she a better golfer than Ai Miyazato or Jiyai Shin? Shin has 7 LPGA wins but only one Major.

Song Hee Kim is one of the most consistent golfers in the world

And how do you compare players who achieve great things but on different tours? When Hee Kyung Seo won three of four KLPGA Majors in 2009, how would that achievement compare with an average LPGA player who perhaps won no events on her tour but finished in the top ten on the money list? Should Seo be considered something special, or would people consider her competition weak and penalize her accordingly?

Hee Kyung Seo with one of her three 2009 Major trophies

The Rolex Rankings have quickly become very important. They are often used to determine which players gain entry into which high profile event. As a result, it is very important that they be fair, so the players who are truly doing things that are great are rewarded. But oftentimes, it seems like the rankings get things very wrong. Let’s take a critical look at the Rolex rankings to see where problems may lie, and what we might suggest to correct those errors.

One of my biggest pet peeves about the rankings is how they treat players who play a lot versus players who play less often. Golfers get points for each time they tee it up. They get more points for finishing higher, modified by which league they are in and the importance of the event. Recent events are also given more weight than older ones. This total number of points is then modified in some way by the number of events that golfer has played to produce her total point value, which is used to determine her ranking. It seems as though this final modification is simply the average gotten by dividing the total by the number of events played. The theory, I guess, is that this gives you a good average value for the player per tournament. But it is a lazy way to determine this and grossly favors a player who plays not so much but has good results when she does. It is generally a much harder thing to play well over more events than fewer. In fact, most golfers are very careful to create a schedule that does not tax them too much for this very reason.

Averaging affects the Korean golfers generally more than other golfers, because the Koreans tend to play more often. In the latest rankings as of this writing (August 23rd), Jiyai Shin has 61 events that count towards her total, the most of anyone in the top ten. By contrast, American Cristie Kerr has only 45 events, 16 fewer tournaments over two years! And that includes Shin’s forced layoff due to her appendectomy.  A better way to calculate a player’s true standing would be to take into account that playing more tournaments is hard and include some sort of fudge factor to the points. So, if a player manages 60 events, she gets ‘extra credit’ for having played so often.   Perhaps it could be designed so that, for every multiple of ten tournaments you play above thirty, you get a bit more consideration.

Two of the women who have been #1: Jiyai Shin and Ai Miyazato

How does averaging actually affect the rankings? Here are a few examples. When the rankings first started back in 2006, no one was surprised to see Annika Sorenstam at the top. But the second ranked player that week was American Michelle Wie, who had not yet won so much as a single event! The main reason Wie was ranked so high was that she had played so few events that her average performance was much higher than almost anyone else, even without a win to her credit. Rolex eventually created an artificial minimum number of events required to force Wie and other players out of the rankings entirely until they played that many tournaments, but to this day Wie’s ranking still seems too high for her results. For instance, with one win to her credit in the past two years, only three top tens in 2010, and no top tens in Majors, Wie is ranked 12th on the latest rankings. She has played 35 events during that span. Compare this to Inbee Park, who is currently 14th, two places behind Wie. Park has had 8 top tens on tour in 2010, including top tens in all four Majors this year. In addition, she has won an event and finished second several other times in Japan this year. But she is below Wie because her total number of tournaments, 56, is 21 more than Michelle. This also means that, should Inbee score a top ten, the effect on her ranking will be far less than it would be for Michelle.

Inbee Park with her 2008 US Women's Open trophy

Now, I’m not saying that there should not be some averaging effect. You don’t want the player who plays the most to also be the highest ranked just because they play the most and earn the most points. But because of averaging, it would sometimes help one’s ranking more not to play at all than to play and do decently. It should NEVER be the case (or at least rarely) that a golfer is better off skipping a tournament than playing in it. The whole point should be to encourage players to support women’s golf by showing up to play!

Here’s another example. The #1 ranking on tour has switched hands multiple times this season, with Jiyai Shin, Ai Miyazato, Cristie Kerr and Lorena Ochoa all holding that spot at some point, and two other players, Suzann Pettersen and Yani Tseng, coming close. These days, the ranking sometimes even changes when no golf is played! Let’s take a look at Jiyai Shin’s ride since she first assumed the top spot in May.

Shin rose to the number one spot for the first time the same week Lorena Ochoa retired (and contrary to what the media sometimes reports, she would have been number one whether Ochoa retired or not. By winning an event in Japan the final week Ochoa was an active player, she gained enough points to overtake the Mexican Hall of Famer). Shin stayed number one until June 21st. She was scheduled to play at the State Farm when she was struck by a bout of appendicitis and was forced to have an emergency appendectomy. Ai Miyazato won the following week and assumed the number one spot. When Shin resumed action at the LPGA Championship two weeks later, she was still #2 in the world. Her ranking point total was 9.12, while another rival, American Cristie Kerr, had a totla of 8.42.

Here is how things went after that:

At the LPGA Championship, Kerr won and Shin finished tied for third with Miyazato. Kerr moves to 10.45 and #1, Shin to 9.57. (Kerr’s Major win = 2.03 points, Shin’s Major third place = .45 points).

After the Jamie Farr Classic (the next tournament): Kerr moved to 10.55, Shin 9.63. Kerr DID NOT EVEN PLAY that week, yet gained .10 points, while Shin, who finished FIFTH at that tournament, gained only .06 points. How is not playing worth more than a top five?

After the US Women’s Open, Kerr 10.38, Shin 9.69. Kerr finished outside the top ten and gained .17 points, while Shin, with yet another top five in a Major, gains .06 points.

See the pattern here? Shin notched three top fives, two in Majors, yet because of the averaging effect she barely gained any points compared to Kerr, who played roughly 15 fewer events than Shin in the two year span. Now, some of the effect may have to do with bad tournaments falling off the end of one’s two year time span, but supposedly a two year old event has a fairly small effect on your total ranking, so losing one, even a good result like a win, should not be enough to negate a current top five. So most likely, most of what we are seeing has to do with Shin’s greater number of tournaments.

Jiyai Shin at this year's LPGA Championship

Another issue with the rankings is how they weight tournaments played in different leagues. Rolex is a bit coy as to how they do that, but even a cursory look at the rankings will tell you that the leagues are ranked as follows: the LPGA is the tops, followed by the JLPGA, the Ladies European Tour, then the KLPGA. When the rankings started, the JLPGA’s league ranking was so high that top JLPGA players were also near the top of the overall rankings. Yuri Fudoh, then the JLPGA’s top gun, was ranked 4th in the initial ratings, even though she rarely plays outside of Japan. They made an adjustment later, but golfers exclusive to the JLPGA still fill a lot of the spots in the top 50. As of this writing, 13 of the top 50 golfers in the world play primarily on the JLPGA, while only 1 of the top 50 focuses on the KLPGA (and that golfer, Hee Kyung Seo, is primarily at her current position because of her success internationally).

Hee Kyung Seo won multiple awards for her play in 2009

One byproduct of a golfer’s world ranking is that those golfers get admission to a lot of exclusive big money events that players in other leagues don’t, which means that those big events have a heck of a lot more Japanese golfers than Korean ones. And of course, if they do well at those events, their ranking is helped even more by virtue of the fact that those tournaments are also weighted to be more important.

But certainly, the weighting of leagues is determined in some logical way, right? If the KLPGA is considered lesser than other tours, it must be for a reason? Perhaps Rolex thinks so, but there doesn’t seem to be any reason to be biased against the KLPGA based on the skill of its players, which is what the rankings supposedly measure. Look at how many graduates of the KLPGA tour have gone on to be important golfers in world golf. Jiyai Shin has been #1 several times this year. Before that, she was the dominant player on the KLPGA, where despite winning about half of the events she played, she never rose above 10th or so internationally until she started playing a lot overseas. Other stars from the KLPGA who have won internationally or otherwise distinguished themselves include Major winner Eun Hee Ji; current JLPGA star Sun Ju Ahn (who as a tour rookie has led their money list much of the year); Na Yeon Choi, currently second on the LPGA money list; Hee Young Park, another top 30 LPGA golfer; and Seon Hwa Lee, a four time winner on the LPGA tour who was also the 2006 LPGA Rookie of the Year. Oh, and Hee Kyung Seo, who won the Kia Classic earlier this year, and Bo Bae Song, a JLPGA player who was the KLPGA’s Player of the Year a few years ago, and who won the LPGA’s Mizuno Classic in 2009. That’s a pretty good list of stars, and that’s just from the last five years. It’s certainly a more impressive group than a similar list of top recent players who started on the Ladies European Tour or the JLPGA would be.

Bo Bae Song won an LPGA tournament as a member of the JLPGA in 2009

So, given that there are great players coming from the KLPGA all the time (and there are more waiting to burst forth in the coming years), it seems time for the Rolex committee to revise the weight they give the KLPGA to increase the rankings of those ladies internationally.

Another example: So Yeon Ryu won five times on the KLPGA in 2009. She is currently ranked 62nd in the world, behind at least a dozen JLPGA players. This year has not been her best year, but she still finished tied for 25th at the US Women’s Open, made the cut at the Nabisco, and notched a top five finish at the ANZ Ladies Masters. Those are three pretty good finishes that, coupled with her KLPGA record, hint that her world ranking is probably a bit unfair.

So Yeon Ryu

So, if Rolex rates the tours in a given order, does it also rate individual tournaments? Not all wins on the LPGA tour are created equal, with some being achieved without a lot of tough competition and others accomplished against most of the top players in the world. Hopefully the rankings are doing this, but it’s tough to tell from just looking at the week to week changes in the points totals. All we can say for sure is that Majors are given more weight than normal events.

To be honest, a system where an event is judged solely on the number of top players in the field might be better than judging based on tour, as some of the KLPGA events attract a number of top golfers (one of the KLPGA Majors last year had several LPGA Major winners in the field). But you might end up with a reductio ad absurdum situation here, where players are ranked low, so the tournament doesn’t count for much, which means players playing in those tournaments don’t get credit for beating tough players, and thus their rankings don’t increase, and on and on.

There are a couple of other questions the rankings must address, and the degree to which they do this successfully is a matter of debate. One is, what is more important to a great golfer: consistency or wins? There are both golfers who win a lot and golfers who contend a lot but don’t win often in the top ten. It seems to me like wins are important, but consistency can be just as tough to achieve, particularly over a long span of time. In this instance, the Rolex rankings seem to have it about right.

Na Yeon Choi is super consistent but only started winning on the LPGA tour recently

Another question is, how important are recent results vs. results over a two year span? The Rolex does diminish the value of older events, but you don’t want to start that devaluation too soon, or else whoever is hot for the current month might end up being #1. Still, they probably put a bit too much weight on events that happened more than a year ago. As great as Jiyai Shin is, it’s hard to believe she and her two wins this year (one in Japan), match up to Miyazato’s five wins, even though Shin is much more consistent (especially in Majors). And it’s very annoying when the rankings change significantly when no tournaments are played because some old tournament falls off the back end of the two year period. That indicates that those old events are still overvalued so long after the fact. Perhaps Rolex should reconsider how quickly the value of events decrease, particularly once they are more than a year old.

The Rolex Rankings are definitely a work in progress, with periodic reevaluations of how they are calculated still occurring. Hopefully they can continue to fine tune the system until it truly represents the most accurate representation of who are the top players in the game.

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