x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Europeans are pulling rank

Golf's ratings system is fine despite suggestions in the United States that is it does not work fairly at start of the year.

Lee Westwood warrants his No 4 spot after winning Race to Dubai to become Europe's No 1.
Lee Westwood warrants his No 4 spot after winning Race to Dubai to become Europe's No 1.

Ever since the official World Golf Rankings were first introduced in 1986 there has been regular debate about whether they give a fair and accurate assessment of who the best players in the world are. Greg Norman, one of 12 players to hold the No 1 spot, was among those who regularly questioned its relevance in the early days and there have been smouldering differences of opinion on either side of the Atlantic over the years.

It is much the same today, when variations in the scheduling of tournaments by the PGA Tour in the US and the European Tour have a significant effect on the rankings at certain times of the year. While the two Tours have 48 and 47 tournaments respectively, the events in Europe are spaced out evenly throughout the year, although weeks coinciding with WGC dates are left blank to avoid a clash. This is not the case in the US where regular PGA Tour events are staged in the same week as WGC tournaments and even at the same time as the British Open, not though coinciding with the US Masters, the US Open or the US PGA Championship.

This still means the end-of- season FedEx Cup play-offs are able to be completed before the end of September, effectively giving the leading PGA Tour players a three-month break before the start of the new season in January, with only the final WGC event of the year in China to be fitted in. In contrast, Europe's top players are able to boost their world ranking positions considerably towards the end of the year in big events like the Dunhill Links Championship and the Dubai World Championship.

As a result, there are always suggestions in the US at the start of the year that the ranking system is not working fairly, and this is a common complaint right now, with Europeans holding eight of the top 13 positions. For me, the system is fine, and unless someone can come up with a better one, or the PGA Tour changes its tournament schedule, we are always going to have arguments about the rankings for these reasons.

For the time being, it is difficult to argue with the current top three - Tiger Woods, Steve Stricker and Phil Mickelson - whose records last year speak for them. At the same time, Lee Westwood fully warrants his No 4 spot after winning the first Race to Dubai to become Europe's No 1. Ian Poulter climbed to No 5 with his victory in the WGC Accenture World Match Play after finishing runner-up in the Abu Dhabi Championship. He also won the Singapore Open in November.

For a period last year before he was sidelined by injury, Paul Casey, the world No 6, was the best player in the game, winning in Abu Dhabi and Houston prior to claiming the PGA Championship in great style at Wentworth. As the year moves on, and the PGA Tour schedule sees more American players getting the chance to amass ranking points during double tournament weeks, things will start evening out.

By the summer we will have the most accurate picture of where players stand in the world of golf, and I expect the rankings to reflect the fact that the game in Europe is stronger than ever. It is hard to ignore the fact that three of the WGC Accenture semi-finalists were Europeans, and that will serve as an extra incentive for the top American players to shine in the second WGC event of the year, next week's CA Championship played over the TPC Blue Monster course at Doral, Miami.

Working against the Europeans is the fact that, Padraig Harrington aside, the current crop among the world's top 50 does not include another major winner, and this tends to support grievances in the US over the rankings. It is strange that Europe should have so many great players, but so few, with the exception of Harrington and Westwood, who look as though they can handle the pressure well enough to capture a major title.

It could take a huge leap of faith to change that, as a genuine belief among Europe's best that they have what it takes to succeed in the majors could be all that is missing. While many of the top players have taken this week off to prepare for Doral, Westwood, Casey, Harrington and Rory McIlroy all tee it up in the Honda Classic, won last year by Korea's YE Yang, who went on to create history in the US PGA Championship as the first Asian to win a major title.

Played at the PGA National Champion Course in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, it is a tournament which is often played in windy conditions, the last thing a player needs when he is fine-tuning his swing for one of the big events of the year. On the other hand, it provides a good opportunity for players to adapt to the same kind of Bermuda grass they will encounter on Doral's greens. Bermuda grass has a big effect on chipping and putting because of the way the grain affects the roll and bounce of the ball.

It usually takes three or four days to adjust to this, so those in action this week could carry a big advantage forward to Doral, assuming they do not lose their swing, and their confidence, in the wind. It will also be interesting to see how the players get on with their new V-groove irons with shots from the Bermuda rough, which can smother the ball and make it very difficult to get any sort of spin at all.

Hopefully, the PGA Tour will not allow the greens to be too soft and accommodating, as that would defeat the object of banning square grooves in an effort to bring more skill back into the game. Former European and US Tour player Philip Parkin (www.philparkin.com) is a member of the TV golf commentary team for the BBC in the UK and Golf Channel in the US. @Email:sports@thenational.ae