Rory McIlroy back to No 1: Golf's official world rankings explained

Rory McIlroy’s return to number one golfer in the world turns a spotlight on the OWGR, writes Kevin Markham.

ALONE HE STANDS: Rory McIlroy was number one in the world on seven different occasions between 2012 and 2015, for a total of 95 weeks. Now, for the eighth time, he is back at the summit. Picture: Brian Rothmuller
ALONE HE STANDS: Rory McIlroy was number one in the world on seven different occasions between 2012 and 2015, for a total of 95 weeks. Now, for the eighth time, he is back at the summit. Picture: Brian Rothmuller

As Rory McIlroy regains his place as the No. 1 golfer in the world this week it is worth challenging readers of this newspaper to name the golfers who have reached this coveted position since the rankings were introduced in 1986.

Take a minute and think it over. How many can you name?

The Official World Golf Ranking (OWGR) was introduced in 1986 to rate and rank the performance of male professional golfers. It is endorsed by the four majors and six major professional tours.

It was introduced when the R&A found it increasingly difficult to attract the top golfers who were dividing their time between these different tours. The system used for ranking the players had actually been in existence since 1968, and it was created by the sports agent, Mark McCormack.

These unofficial rankings were published in McCormack’s World of Professional Golf Annual, so it is no coincidence that he became the first chairman of the International Advisory Committee, which oversaw the official OWGR rankings.

The first list ever produced was published just before the 1986 Masters tournament.

Between then and today there have been 23 world number ones. More than you thought, yes?

The first number one was Bernhard Langer. The shortest spell of domination belongs to Tom Lehman, in 1997, when he was number one for just one week. No one will be surprised by the golfer who has held the top spot for longer than anyone else: Tiger Woods has managed 683 weeks in all, with his longest spell of 281 weeks between June 2005 and October 2010. Let’s not forget Pádraig Harrington won three majors between 2007 and 2008, but it wasn’t enough to knock Woods off the top. Indeed, Pádraig’s highest ranking was in July 2008, when he reached third.

It is also little surprise that no one else has regained the number one slot more often than Woods — 11 times — although he is matched by Greg Norman, who was the top golfer for 331 weeks and, therefore, the second most prolific number one golfer.

Interestingly, Tiger’s first trip to the top lasted exactly one week, taking the top spot away from Greg Norman.

Sadly the OWGR list does not date back far enough to include the likes of Nicklaus, Watson, and Palmer (let alone Hogan, Snead, Jones, Hagen, and Mangrum), but even since 1986 there have been adjustments to the way in which the rankings are calculated.

It can skew things in the strangest ways. Just look at Rory’s ascendancy this week… after not hitting a single shot to get there. Also consider Luke Donald, who, despite not winning a major or even being runner-up, held the top spot for 40 weeks in 2011, thanks to his consistent string of performances. He won five tournaments during his time at the top while his best finish in the majors was 5th, at the 2012 Open Championship.

Staying at the top can be notoriously difficult. Luke Donald swapped the number one spot with McIlroy seven times over the course of 12 weeks, starting on March 4, 2012, when Rory won The Honda Classic. McIlroy wrestled it back from Donald for the final time, on August 12, when he won his first PGA Championship. Rory had another ding-dong with Jordan Spieth, in 2015, swapping places four times in just five weeks. Being number one, it seems, can be fleetingly brief… just ask Tom Lehman.

Rory was number one on seven different occasions between 2012 and 2015, for a total of 95 weeks. Now, for the eighth time, he is back to number one and if he can keep that ranking for another three weeks he will pass Nick Faldo’s tally of 97 weeks. That will make him the third-longest holder of the number one slot. Then again, Dustin Johnson is on 91 weeks and is hot on Rory’s heels.

There are two things that have caught people’s attention as Rory rises once more to the top. The first is that it has been four years and four months since Rory was last at the top of the rankings. Not surprisingly that is a record, although Greg Norman managed an interval of three years and four months. Everyone else can be measured in weeks and months.

The second, of course, focuses on Rory getting back to number one without even hitting a shot. This is because Brooks Koepka came 17th at the controversial Saudi International, which Rory declined to attend. As a result, you may be asking yourself how the ranking criteria work.

    Official World ranking: 1 Rory McIlroy (N Irl) 9.18pts, 2 Brooks Koepka (USA) 9.15, 3 Jon Rahm (Spa) 8.66, 4 Justin Thomas (USA) 7.63, 5 Dustin Johnson (USA) 6.90, 6 Patrick Cantlay (USA) 6.12, 7 Webb Simpson (USA) 6.07, 8 Tiger Woods (USA) 6.05, 9 Xander Schauffele (USA) 5.73, 10 Justin Rose (Eng) 5.65, 11 Tommy Fleetwood (Eng) 5.61, 12 Tony Finau (USA) 5.03, 13 Patrick Reed (USA) 4.79, 14 Adam Scott (Aus) 4.51, 15 Louis Oosthuizen (Rsa) 4.45, 16 Gary Woodland (USA) 4.37, 17 Shane Lowry (Irl) 4.32, 18 Bryson DeChambeau (USA) 4.26, 19 Marc Leishman (Aus) 4.19, 20 Matt Kuchar (USA) 4.11, 21 Paul Casey (Eng) 4.10, 22 Bernd Wiesberger (Aut) 3.96, 23 Hideki Matsuyama (Jpn) 3.95, 24 Francesco Molinari (Ita) 3.91, 25 Matthew Fitzpatrick (Eng) 3.81, 26 Rickie Fowler (USA) 3.72, 27 Henrik Stenson (Swe) 3.26, 28 Kevin Na (USA) 3.20, 29 Abraham Ancer (Mex) 3.13, 30 Lee Westwood (Eng) 3.12, 31 Danny Willett (Eng) 3.02, 32 Kevin Kisner (USA) 2.88, 33 Sungjae Im (Kor) 2.87, 34 Tyrrell Hatton (Eng) 2.84, 35 Cameron Smith (Aus) 2.82, 36 Shugo Imahira (Jpn) 2.81, 37 Billy Horschel (USA) 2.74, 38 Jason Day (Aus) 2.73,39 Matt Wallace (Eng) 2.73 , 40 Jazz Janewattananond (Tha) 2.72, 41 Sergio Garcia (Spa) 2.71, 42 Victor Perez (Fra) 2.68, 43 Chez Reavie (USA) 2.68, 44 Brandt Snedeker (USA) 2.52, 45 Bubba Watson (USA) 2.49, 46 Rafael Cabrera-Bello (Spa) 2.47, 47 Graeme McDowell (N Irl) 2.34, 48 Byeong-Hun An (Kor) 2.31, 49 Jordan Spieth (USA) 2.29, 50 Erik Van Rooyen (Rsa) 2.28

Points are awarded from 23 ‘Eligible Golf Tours’ from around the world. Golfers are awarded points based on their final finishing position and on the strength of the field. So far so good. The ranking also works on a two-year rolling format with the points awarded for each tournament maintained for a 13-week period to place additional emphasis on recent performances.

After that, it all becomes a bit complicated. Put it this way: To regain the number one spot, Rory has moved from 0.2 points behind Koepka, to 0.03 of a point in front.

That’s three-hundredths of a point. Talk about splitting hairs.

And what about Tiger in all of this? Despite his fall to 1,199th in the world in December 2017, he is now back to sixth. Will he ever regain the number one spot? Probably not. His days of domination have gone (his last time as number one was in May 2014) as the top spot is now a battleground for the younger generation.

Put it this way, when Tiger first became number one in June 1997, Rory McIlroy was aged eight, Brooks Koepka seven, Jon Rahm two, and Justin Thomas was four. These are today’s top four golfers.

There is such an array of talent that one suspects a Tiger-like domination is unlikely to be repeated.

Then again, they probably said the same thing after Greg Norman. So how are you getting on with that list? How many of the 23 golfers, from nine countries, did you get? Did you remember Nick Price? Martin Kaymer? Ian Woosnam?

The 23, from start to finish are: Bernhard Langer (three weeks in total), Seve Ballesteros (61), Greg Norman (331), Nick Faldo (97), Ian Woosnam (50), Fred Couples (16), Nick Price (44), Tom Lehman (one), Tiger Woods (683), Ernie Els (nine), David Duval (15), Vijay Singh (32), Lee Westwood (22), Martin Kaymer (eight), Luke Donald (56), Rory McIlroy (95), Adam Scott (11), Jordan Spieth (26), Jason Day (51), Dustin Johnson (91), Justin Thomas (four), Justin Rose (13), Brooks Koepka (47).

And spare a thought for Phil Mickelson who, since 2001, has spent 270 weeks at number two on the list… and won five Majors (to Luke Donald’s blank sheet) without ever making it to the top spot.

The final word should go to Rory McIlroy.

Back at the World Golf Championships in 2017, McIlroy was number three in the world.

He was asked what it meant to be number one in the world.

“I think for a lot of guys, it’s an ego thing. It’s not as if I earn more money because I’m the world number one or 39, but it’s just nice to be able to say that you’re the best in the world at what you do.”

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