A numbers whiz has devised a system for ranking the world's best amateur golfers

Tuesday February 19th, 2008
Germany's Martin Kaymer vaulted to 21st after he won the Abu Dhabi Championship last month.
AP

The Official World Golf Ranking has flaws, but it is widely accepted. The pros play their way into major championships and big events, like this week's WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, based on their ranking.

Sure, the system has annoying quirks. Players can move up a few spots despite being idle. A newcomer can rise a little too quickly with a good early performance. Martin Kaymer, a 24-year-old German who was last year's European Tour rookie of the year, vaulted to 21st after he won the Abu Dhabi Championship last month. And how is it that Shingo Katayama of Japan seems to be a permanent fixture in the top 50? Never mind. The rankings aren't perfect, but they're good enough.

We're Americans, we love top-10 lists and rankings. Golf has another one you should check out, if only because of its mind-boggling nature. It's the Scratch Players World Amateur Ranking (SPWAR, scratchplayers.org). Where would you begin if you wanted to rank the world's best male amateur golfers? Forget apples and oranges, this compares apples and pork chops ... and angel-hair pasta and won-ton soup.

It sounds impossible, and yet Fred Solomon, 54, a numbers whiz and former financial planner based in San Francisco, has done it. His rankings have been accepted as the standard by a number of golf entities around the world, including Golfweek — SPWAR replaced the magazine's own amateur rankings. Solomon developed the rankings in part to fill a need, and in part to create a system to invite players to his own tournament, the Scratch Players Championship, which began in 2000. It is held the week before the U.S. Amateur and usually draws a top international field. (The '08 event was regrettably canceled when Solomon was unable to secure a suitable course near Pinehurst, site of this year's U.S. Amateur.)

"It was a hugely daunting task," said Solomon, who spent four years developing and refining his system. "You can't do a world ranking unless you get all of the tournaments. I knew the top state amateur events and the top national events in the U.S., but you start talking about Finland, India, Japan — it's difficult. The really hard part is figuring out how many points you give the Berkshire Amateur in England versus the Southeast Amateur in Georgia. That took me a long time to figure out."

The rankings have to be geographically balanced. If 85 of the top 100 ranked players were from the U.S., it wouldn't be credible. So Solomon scours the world looking for significant amateur tournaments. His rankings reflect results from 1,500 events worldwide and rank more than 4,800 amateur golfers. Solomon awards points based on the quality of the field (how many of the top 10, 50, 100, 200 or 500 are playing), the size of the field (the bigger, the better, such as the 312-man U.S. Amateur field) and the number of holes played (72 is better than 54).

"I didn't create a mountain out of a molehill as far as a statistical case study," he said. "You can crunch the numbers and be as quantitative as you want, but there's an art to it. You must know amateur golf."

It doesn't matter whether you're playing the Winter Season Amateur in Taiwan, the Coimbatore Amateur in India or the New South Wales Amateur, to name just a few. Solomon factors the results into his rankings. That's why his rankings bury his only competition, a recent foray into world rankings by the Royal & Ancient Golf Club (wagr.randa.org), the folks who run the British Open and the British Amateur, among other traditional events.

The R&A recognizes some 600 events and 1,500 players but its rankings pale by comparison. I first noticed a glaring omission last year on the R&A's list because I have a rooting interest — my son, Mike, is a college player at Marquette and was in the rankings. Mike got points for missing the cut at the Eastern Amateur, but no points for winning the Pennsylvania Open, where he beat a deep field that included professionals. I inquired about that and was told by the R&A that state opens aren't counted yet, but may be next year. The R&A, which doesn't recognize American state amateur championships, either, counts results going back three years. More data is usually better in any statistical ranking, but I'd argue that scores from 2005 and even 2006 have little bearing on the reality that is 2008.

Jamie Lovemark, a University of Southern California sophomore, was named SPWAR's player of the year a few days ago. This is hardly a surprise since Lovemark was the NCAA champion as a freshman last year and has made the cut two years in a row at the PGA Tour's Torrey Pines event. The R&A's player of the year was Colt Knost, who won the U.S. Amateur in August and then turned pro.

"Knost was their No. 1-ranked amateur when they decided to pick it in September or whenever," Solomon said. "My player of the year is based on who's No. 1 for the most weeks during the year, which is a fairer way to do it."

Lovemark was No. 1 for 26 weeks, and the former Oklahoma State star Pablo Martin, who won a European tour event while still an amateur, was No. 1 for 24 weeks. Webb Simpson and Dustin Johnson held the No. 1 spot the other two weeks.

A comparison of last week's rankings reveals some glaring differences. Lovemark is No. 1 in SPWAR, Florida's Billy Horschel is second and Clemson's Kyle Stanley is third. In the R&A list, they rank fourth, thirteenth and eighth, respectively. The R&A's No. 1 player is Oklahoma State freshman Rickie Fowler, ninth in SPWAR. England's Daniel Willett, second in the R&A, ranks 31st on Solomon's list. (In the interest of full disclosure, Mike Van Sickle ranks 103rd in the SPWAR and 67th in the R&A.)

The biggest top 100 discrepancy involves Tim Hogarth of Northridge, Calif. He is ranked 79th in SPWAR, 1461st by the R&A. Hogarth was a medalist at last year's U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship, where he finished ninth. He also won the last two Los Angeles City Championships and Kelly Cups, and last year's Southern California Mid-Amateur and Pasadena City Championship. The R&A just doesn't dig that deep.

"Trying to isolate the top amateurs in the world is like trying to herd cats," Solomon said. "They're going to play where they feel like it, not necessarily where you want them to. You can't get a fix on how they stack up unless you take into account every possible event."

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