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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Why the OWGR Is So Misleading

How can a Ryder Cup team be so strong "on paper" and yet get beaten so badly in the actual event?

Since this week's Limerick Summary won't come out until Tuesday (the Deutsche Bank has a Monday finish) and I'm planning to make my Ryder Cup picks on Monday (after I see how the other tournaments finish today), I thought I'd take a few minutes to give my opinion about one of the most confusing conundrums related to the Ryder Cup.

In years past the US team has clearly been the strongest according to their world rankings, yet they haven't played the way those rankings might lead you to expect. Likewise, it's obvious the European team is a little nervous about being the strongest on paper this year and are trying to downplay it a bit. I think there's a feeling that your OWGR rankings can be a jinx!

If you want to understand why the OWGR isn't necessarily a good indicator of Ryder Cup potential, you have to realize that all ranking systems make certain assumptions... and those assumptions may not be completely accurate. The OWGR makes a couple of these assumptions, and most analysts never even recognize them.

The first assumption -- and, I believe, the most flawed one -- is the belief that strength of field alone is sufficient for a world ranking system. Although this assumption is never directly mentioned, you hear it voiced when someone complains about "playing the rankings."

For example, if the World #1 plays in a Japan Tour event -- an event where the ranking points awarded for a win would normally be quite low compared to a PGA Tour event -- and then he wins that event (which you would expect if the #1 is really that much better than the rest of the field), the World #1 is "padding his points total" by artificially inflating the number of available points at that event.

This is also why some folks complain about small fields (like Tiger's World Challenge event) getting ranking points. The small number of highly-ranked players creates a large pool of world ranking points that will be divided among them, thus giving them a disproportionate boost in the OWGR.

However, this is only one way in which the OWGR is skewed by the strength of field measure. While you can artificially boost your ranking if you play the numbers, the system can also hide player improvement by keeping their points artificially low.

This is why the European players "suddenly" became top-ranked players. Let me explain.

There is a very real difference between American golf and European golf. (Forgive me for lumping the rest of the world under the "European" label, but it makes this post easier to write. Besides, we are talking Ryder Cup here!) American golf is "target golf" -- the ball is played primarily through the air, flown a specific distance to a specific spot, and made to land softly. European golf, on the other hand, is often played "along the ground," which simply means there is no one prescribed way to get the ball close to the hole. A wider variety of skills is required if you hope to take the best scoring option.

Perhaps the classic example of this disparity is how long it took Phil Mickelson to get good enough to win an Open Championship. Despite a consistently high position in the OWGR, Euro golf requires a set of skills that even a wizard like Phil struggles to master. In fact, you may have noticed that Euro players have more success adapting to American golf than American golfers have adapting to Euro golf.

And that's where the OWGR's strength of field measure falls short.

The OWGR assumes that the best players are in America although you could argue that the style of golf here is easier to learn and excel at. American courses may be better groomed than many Euro courses, but they don't require the variety of shots that Euro courses do.

As a result, the OWGR has historically awarded Euro players fewer points for an equivalent finish than American players received, even when the skill levels of the Euro players were improving more quickly. By the time the Euro players had climbed high enough in the rankings to qualify for the majors and WGC events, their skill levels were much higher than those of an equivalently-ranked American player. Their OWGR rankings -- awarded by the strength of field measure alone -- were not an accurate indication of their playing skills.

In other words, the OWGR unintentionally causes certain players to be sandbaggers by undervaluing their skill levels. And those skills give them a real advantage, especially in the Ryder Cup.

The second assumption -- which represents a misunderstanding by the rest of us as much as it does a flaw in the OWGR -- is that stroke play rankings accurately predict match play ability. The OWGR values consistent play over streaky play, which is a logical approach to stroke play.

While everyone wants to win, our game (predominantly stroke play) is different from most other sports (which are predominantly match play). We don't often play one-on-one, which typically produces one winner and one loser, at the professional level. Rather, we most frequently play one-on-150, and a player may play extremely well yet win only once every two or three years... if that often.

There simply HAS to be some way to rank those who don't win. The OWGR is our response to that aspect of our game. Shooting -8 is a better finish than shooting +2, so we award ranking points accordingly.

However, that mindset is flawed when we approach match play. Consider this:

Stroke play is an absolute measure of performance; as I said, shooting -8 is a better finish than shooting +2. We know that because we are measuring scores against an absolute scale. That -8 is always better than a +2.

But that's not necessarily true in match play. While the scores of two competitors will rarely be so wide apart, the way matches are scored -- winning or losing a hole -- means that all strokes are not created equal. It's possible for a match play winner to take more strokes than his losing opponent, depending on how the strokes fell and on which holes.

In addition, your opponent's play is the measure of your play, not an absolute scale. You might win your match with a +2 stroke score while another player might lose their match while shooting -8. Scores are relative in match play.

The streaky player who doesn't score well consistently may have a weak OWGR ranking yet be a beast in the Ryder Cup because of his ability to "catch fire" and win a couple of key matches. Likewise, the consistent player with a strong OWGR ranking may find himself struggling to make enough birdies at the right moment to steal the winning match.

When it comes to the Ryder Cup, the OWGR is of limited value in predicting the winner. Highly-ranked players may improve your team's odds of victory, but it's the lightning bolts -- can you say Ian Poulter? -- who typically change the balance of power at critical moments.

That's why the OWGR has been so misleading when attempting to predict Ryder Cup winners... and perhaps why the Euro team has been downplaying their "paper advantage" recently. They know the real power players in match play rarely dominate the OWGR's stroke play rankings.

And this year, unlike other years, I think the US team may have gotten enough of our streaky players through the qualifying system to make the Euros a little nervous.

I'll make my Captain's picks for both teams tomorrow.

1 comment:

  1. LPGA last year added two spots from World Rankings onto Solheim Cup team.