On Alex Noren’s BMW PGA Championship win and the OWGR
The Official World Golf Rankings are not a perfect system.
Thousands of players take part in hundreds of tournaments across nineteen eligible tours each year, and while the rankings are weighted towards recent performance, points earned in events from the previous two years are accounted for in the rankings. Field strength, based on the quality of tour and number of top players playing in the event, determine the amount of points available each week. If it sounds complicated, it’s probably because it kinda is, but when you involve that many players and tours in a ranking system, chances are you’re not going to be able to come up with something that’s both simple and effective. I have no idea if world number 52 Yuta Ikeda is a better player than number 103 Bud Cauley, and I don’t think anyone can really come up with a system that tells us that definitively when they don’t play in the same events.
That’s not to say that you can’t criticize the system. With a few exceptions on the European Tour, it’s pretty much a guarantee that the PGA Tour will have the best tournament in golf on a weekly basis, and it feels like the current system is weighted a little too heavily towards wins and high finishes on “lesser” tours, and doesn’t give enough credit to good finishes on the PGA Tour. This is why you often hear many North American golf fans talk about “new” players in the WGC fields every year, as players like Ikeda, Tyrrell Hatton and Hideto Tanihara have used good performances outside of the PGA Tour to get into big events. Two years ago, Anirban Lahiri was the player that many people pointed to as the guy that took most advantage of the point system, getting to as high as 33rd in the world in March of 2015 after a pair of smaller European Tour wins in February of that year and while that level of play hasn’t continued, he’s still ranked 88th in the world and is a quality player.
Last year, the big mover in the OWGR was Alex Noren. Thanks to four wins from July on through the end of 2016, Noren rocketed up the rankings from 99th prior to his Scottish Open win to 9th at the end of 2016 and while that large of a jump may have been a surprise, it shouldn’t have been that shocking to see Noren play well. Prior to some pretty serious injuries, Noren had won four times on the European Tour and had cracked the top 50 in the world back in 2012, so it’s not like this came out of absolutely nowhere. Coming into the BMW PGA Championship, Noren was ranked 13th in the world, and after a course record setting 62 on Sunday at Wentworth when he started the day seven shots back of the leaders, Noren now has the biggest win of his career. Francesco Molinari, his nearest competitor, finished two shots back.
It was a great display of ball striking and incredible putting, with the exclamation point coming on that ridiculous sequence of shots on the par-5 18th. Aside from someone miraculously holing out for a 2, there’s simply no better way to play that hole and at the end of the year, that approach may hold up as the shot of the year on the European Tour. It was my first trip down to Sawgrass and the PLAYERS Championship two weeks ago, and even though I knew the course really well from watching it yearly on TV, I wanted to get to know the course as best as I could while I was down there, so I asked some people about the best way to do just that. Their recommendation was to follow some lesser known groups around to get a completely unobstructed view of the action, and to see how the non-superstars play the course.
On Friday, I settled on watching the Noren/Luke Donald/Adam Hadwin group because few people seemed to be following them, and I was super intrigued by Noren. I’d watched him on TV a little bit, but not enough to get a really good sense of the kind of player he was. After walking with them for seven holes, I was all-in on Noren. You know how broadcasters talk about the sound off the club face and how it just sounds different from certain guys? Sergio, Rory and Stenson are usually three guys that get that label, and Noren gave me the same impression. Even compared to the other pros, Noren had a different feel to him and he hit some really cool shots along the way. Not only was it a great way to get to know the course a lot better, but this experience turned me into a huge fan of Noren as well. Sure, it was only a small sample size and he didn’t go on a birdie binge when I was following him, but it was pretty clear to me how he was ranked so highly after walking the course with him.
The BMW PGA is the flagship event in Europe and it draws big crowds and a very good field. By the definitions of the OWGR, the field was quite a bit better at Wentworth than it was at Colonial where Kevin Kisner came away with the win, and much like Noren’s win last year at the Scottish Open, it’s impossible to paint this victory as anything other than a great performance against a world class field, and that’s before you consider the fact that he shot a 10-under par 62 to get the job done. One of the things that I’ve talked about often over the years is how frustrating it is that some people don’t pay attention to the European Tour, or dismiss it entirely as being completely inferior to the product that the PGA Tour puts on every week. While some of that criticism can be valid, in other cases it’s completely unfair. This is what leads to people questioning the ability of not only players like Hatton, Lahiri and Noren, but it even happens to guys like Rickie Fowler who can’t get enough credit for big wins overseas because it didn’t happen under the umbrella of the PGA Tour.
When Noren wakes up on Monday, he’ll not only have the BMW PGA Championship trophy, but he’ll also be ranked 8th in the world. It’s his highest ever ranking in the OWGR, and surely it’ll raise some eyebrows the next time he shows up at a big event in the United States but it really shouldn’t. The rankings no doubt have their flaws, and I’m sure that Noren is in for a bit of a regression at some point because that’s just the way golf works, but make no mistake: Alex Noren really is one of the best players in the world.
He’s the real deal, and he has absolutely earned that spot.