US remain victims of the numbers racket

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The Independent Online

At every Ryder Cup there is a feeling that the Americans just don't get it, and even a week on it is hard to believe quite how badly they are struck down with misconceptions. But then the country has an obsession with sporting statistics and this only leads to further misunderstandings.

At every Ryder Cup there is a feeling that the Americans just don't get it, and even a week on it is hard to believe quite how badly they are struck down with misconceptions. But then the country has an obsession with sporting statistics and this only leads to further misunderstandings.

Take the opening and closing ceremonies. While the world watched on with incredulity, the Americans were lined up in the order they qualified, with the wild cards at the end. The same was true of the profiles in the programme and even Hal Sutton's singles order. Yet as soon as the teams are finalised they are precisely that, a team, and while the Europeans were introduced alphabetically, their officials had to resist heavy pressure not to follow the home example. "I was made to feel part of the team," said Colin Montgomerie, "but how did it make their wild cards feel?" There has been a suggestion that Tiger Woods, at the head of the line this time, was irritated at past Ryder Cups at being introduced last.

Moneyball is the extraordinary tale of the Oakland Athletics, the poorest team in baseball who found that most of the traditional statistics relating to players' performances did not correlate with winning games. Instead, they went for players they could afford whose qualities were undervalued by the market but led to more victories.

Likewise, most of the statistics latched on to by the US media, whose ignorance of golf outside their country is one of the reasons Europe always want to win so badly, do not correlate with Ryder Cup victories. Major victories? America had many more but their only reigning major champion, Phil Mickelson, played like a drain. Money earned? Probably more of an inverse relationship, although it's relative, millionaires defeating multi-millionaires. World rankings? America had one player outside the top 40, Europe six. And yet the two leading administrators of the ranking bet on Europe winning by at least four points.

What does compute is the number of players with victories in recent months. Since May, five Europeans had won, but only Stewart Cink of the US team. While the European qualifying only lasts for a year, the American system drifted back to 2002. The ranking system also emphasises players who regularly finish in the top 10 rather than those who might not be as consistent but have a good record of winning when in contention. Of course, the world ranking consists of performances in 72-hole strokeplay events and as such is an unreliable guide for matchplay.

As it happens, there is a board meeting of the world ranking this week, which will consider a minor tweaking suggested by the technical committee. There have always been revisions and the ranking has gone through phases - when the best players were European in the early days it was dismissed as another marketing tool of the late Mark McCormack.

It is now under the control of the tours and the majors but there is a basic premise that the more top players in an event, the more points on offer. Europe gets around two-thirds of the points in the States. Winning, wherever it is achieved, is perhaps slightly undervalued, however.

The World Golf Championships, Europe's leading players competing more in the States and the Americans travelling less overseas have widened the disparity. But the major factor is the major championships and unless Bernhard Langer's charges fulfil his optimism at that level, the ranking will continue to have a lopsided look.

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