I love rankings and polls. Sports, politics, sex - it doesn't matter.
The more confusing the better. Actually, most sports rankings are purposely complex because the rankers assume, rightly, that sportswriters, not known for being deep thinkers, won't dispute them because they can't figure them out.
They got that wrong with the college football bowl system - even sportswriters can figure out there's something wrong there.
But they got it right with the world golf rankings, which are particularly confusing. Most writers simply summarize their purpose - they reward consistency over a two-year period - and let it go at that.
With good reason. Here's one sentence from the official explanation written by a wordy descendant of James Joyce: "The World Rankings points for each player are accumulated over a two-year 'rolling' period with the points awarded in the most recent 13-week period doubled - ranking points will then decline in eight equal quarter-year intervals..."
That isn't even the end of the sentence.
With Tiger Woods's five-year reign at the top spot of the world rankings finally ended by Vijay Singh, the rankings have come under increased scrutiny.
Everybody but Tiger Woods' mama would admit Singh has been the better player for the last year or so, and that the rankings are too conservative. I wouldn't argue with that even if I could figure out the criteria.
"It's all on a paper," Singh said at a conference call with reporters. "I myself thought I was the best player in the world for a while now."
But when some say golf would be better off without the rankings, I say hold that wedge shot right there.
You cannot tell me that the Singh-Woods mano-a-mano matchup at the Deutsche Bank Championship last week would have been nearly as intriguing had the top spot not been in jeopardy.
Interesting yes: two of the greatest players in golf going head to head, even if in a relatively second-tier tournament. But with the official top spot in the world on the line, the drama of the scenario was compounded.
That's what golf rankings are supposed to do: pique our interest by codifying performance in a game that, despite its reliance on finite numbers, can be pretty subjective when figuring out who's better and best.
Others denigrate the rankings because they say the players themselves don't care. First of all, baloney. They may not care if they're ranked 257th, but when you get into the top-10 and especially the top two and three, believe me, they care.
Secondly, who cares what the players think? They play. We watch. They're having fun playing, somebody has to make it as much fun as possible for us to watch.
Are the rankings a man-made, media invention? You bet they are. But in a world of ubiquitous self-promotion, rankings are ranked right up there at the top.
It's a fine, tangible reward for Singh, who was once a club pro in Borneo - name a more obscure outpost in the world of golf - and who has worked harder than just about anyone for the last 20 years to scratch and claw his way to the top.
I enjoy the fact Singh can now feel, pardon my use of the word, validated, even if he won't admit it publicly. This isn't exactly a beloved figure in the world of golf. Even in his native Fiji, he was discriminated against because of his Indian ancestry.
He's been accused of cheating on the Asian tour, where he was banned, and had trouble re-paying loans when he was laboring on the Australian tour, from which he was also summarily dismissed.
Almost everywhere he goes on the PGA Tour, crowds are pulling for the other guy, who Singh usually beats.
As much as we can revel in Singh's lofty new position, we can also celebrate Woods' remarkably long hold on the top spot. He took over when Bill Clinton was in the White House, back when the world was safer and deficits were, oh, about a few trillion dollars less.
When Woods was at the top of his game, he was winning tournaments by scary numbers: 12, 13, even 15 strokes. He seemed to be some sort of Zeus-like figure, sent down from Olympus to show other mortals how to play the game.
But even after whatever ills have befallen him, he has stayed consistently among the top players in the game. His steady hold on No. 1 can be compared to DiMaggios's 56-game hitting streak, if you want to talk about models of consistency.
Rankings, you have to love them. They give endless fodder for those of us who like to argue over unimportant issues. You can pick and choose, if you don't like one.
How about this: Golf Week has a ranking system designed to give a better picture of who's the best at any given time. For months, that has been Singh. Its latest ranking has you-know-who replacing him at the top: our man Tiger.
No, I don't understand it.
September 9, 2004
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