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World ranking sending the wrong message
by Doug Ferguson

THOMASTOWN, Ireland (AP) ? For those players who can't get into the World Golf Championships, one simple solution is to play better. Only it's not always that simple.

"Before all the world rankings came along, how did we figure this stuff out?" Jeff Sluman wondered aloud. "We did survive, didn't we?"

The world ranking is the chief criterion for getting into the three official WGC events and the four major championships. Not many players understand the way the ranking works, although several of them have figured out one troubling component.

It's not always how they play, but how often.

Sluman is an example of a system that penalizes some guys for playing too much at a time when the PGA Tour wants everyone to play more.

Consider his record.

Sluman finished the 2000 season at No. 63 in the world ranking. In 30 tournaments the following year, he won the B.C. Open, finished second at Riviera, third at Doral, had five other top 10s, earned $1.8 million and was 21st on the PGA Tour money list.

He moved all the way up to No. 62.

"That's absurd," Sluman said.

The world ranking, endorsed by the PGA Tour five years ago, essentially works like this: Players accumulate points based on the strength of field and how they finish. Those points are devalued by one-eighth every 13 weeks over a two-year period.

Then - and this is the critical part - the total points are divided by the number of tournaments they play, with a minimum of 40 events.

The more tournaments, the greater the divisor, and the lower the average, the tougher it makes it to move up in the ranking.

About the only thing no one disputes is who's No. 1.

The ranking becomes a lot more volatile lower down the food chain, where players at times have to decide whether they're better off not playing - especially the week before the deadline for getting into the marquee events.

Paul Azinger twice has been on the bubble before a big event and qualified by not playing. The latest example was two weeks ago when he decided not to play the Canadian Open. He didn't realize he had dropped to No. 49, and figured he would slip out of the top 50 and miss out on the American Express Championship in Ireland.

Surprise! He went up to No. 46.

"If I had played and missed the cut, or finished 20th, I probably wouldn't be here," he said. "It encourages you not to play at times. The world ranking is fine, but it shouldn't be used to exempt players into fields. No one understands it.

"You should know what you're choking for."

Sluman has 55 more points than Azinger, although at No. 49 this week he is only a fraction of a point ahead in the ranking. The difference? Sluman has played 63 tournaments in the last two years, while Azinger has played 41.

"It's something that goes against the grain of our ideals," said Stewart Cink, who slipped out of the top 50 and didn't qualify for Ireland. "You want the top players to play as much as possible. But let's get real. The guys around 50 aren't exactly the elite."

Even so, Sluman believed he belonged at the NEC Invitational last month at Sahalee, especially since he had won twice on the PGA Tour over the past 13 months.

Instead, he fell victim to a couple of strange circumstances.

The Greater Milwaukee Open had a field strong enough for the winner to qualify for the NEC - until Bob Tway withdrew, which reduced the strength of field below the limit.

Did Tway's absence make it that much easier for Sluman to win by four strokes?

"Oh, yeah. It was a real layup," Sluman said sarcastically, shaking his head.

While Sluman stayed home in Chicago, Graeme McDowell competed for the $1 million first prize at Sahalee. How did McDowell get into the field? By winning the Scandinavian Masters, which became a qualifying event because - get this - Sluman played and helped increase the strength of field.

The world ranking is not evil. Any system that tries to measure more than 500 golfers playing six tours around the world is going to have flaws.

But when players start realizing that the best way to qualify for seven big tournaments is to stay home during certain weeks, the world ranking sends the wrong message.

Sluman has an interesting solution.

Instead of making 40 tournaments every two years the minimum, why not make that the maximum? The ranking then would depend on how someone performs in the 20 strongest tournaments he plays each year, and not worry about how often he plays.

Players wouldn't have to look at cutoff dates for the WGC events and the four majors, and wonder if they should sit that tournament out to protect their ranking.

"All that would do is encourage you to play more," Sluman said. "And that's what the tour wants, isn't it?"

Good question.

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