Saudi Money Split Golf. Then Came Debate Over a Formula.

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Since he stepped into a tee box near London last June, Dustin Johnson has earned at least $36 million in prize money, the most of any golfer in the world.

He has also seen his standing in the Official World Golf Ranking plunge, from No. 15 to No. 69.

Less than three years after his Masters Tournament victory, Johnson is hardly playing poorly. But his collapse in the ranking — one he says he no longer bothers to monitor — is a calculable consequence of his choice to leave the PGA Tour for LIV Golf, the league bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund that debuted last year.

LIV has gleefully rocked men’s golf and reveled in challenging some of the old order. The circuit, though, is finding that its independent streak can go only so far, and it is seeking at least some favor and special dispensations from the industry’s most hidebound gatekeepers.

Those allowances have not come yet. LIV asked to be included in the ranking system about nine months ago, but executives are still weighing its application, and players like Johnson are slipping in the formula-based standings since they are appearing in few, if any, events that award ranking points. In golf, ranking is not merely a matter of ego; for many players, it affects the values of sponsorship deals and serves as a crucial gateway for entry to major tournaments such as the Masters, which will begin Thursday at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia.

“They need to do something to figure it out because, obviously, we have great players playing over here, and we’re not getting any points for events, and we should be,” said Johnson, who plays on the LIV circuit with the past major champions Brooks Koepka, Phil Mickelson and Cameron Smith, who, at No. 6, is the highest-ranked LIV player.

“They just need to figure out a system that’s fair for everyone,” Johnson, who spent 135 weeks at the No. 1, said in an interview last month, when he figured his play these days warranted a position around No. 5.

A potential affiliation between LIV and the O.W.G.R., which a handful of elite tours and governing bodies control, is being debated privately. But whenever a resolution comes, its ripple effects could shape LIV’s allure to players and the majesty of the Masters and the other major men’s tournaments: the British Open, the P.G.A. Championship and the U.S. Open.

LIV and its supporters contend that if the league’s players are routinely excluded from major tournaments because of a spat over rankings, the reputations of golf’s pre-eminent tests will erode and, in turn, public interest in the competitions will fade. The Saudi league’s critics, though, are skeptical that LIV’s 54-hole, no-cut tournaments should be readily compared to the 72-hole events that are commonplace on established circuits like the PGA Tour.

Players earn ranking points each time they compete in eligible events over a rolling two-year period. So as the months have progressed and LIV golfers have appeared in fewer sanctioned competitions, their banked points have declined, and they have slid down the list.

Bryson DeChambeau, the 2020 U.S. Open winner, arrived at last year’s Masters at No. 19. He has fallen to No. 155. Koepka, a four-time major tournament winner who prevailed at LIV’s event in Florida over the weekend, missed the Masters cut last spring but was No. 16 afterward. A former world No. 1, Koepka is now No. 118. Patrick Reed, the 2018 Masters champion, played Augusta last year ranked 31st; he now stands at No. 70.

“I think a lot of people are against them having world ranking points,” Jon Rahm, the current third-ranked player and an occasionally fearsome critic of the formula, said late last year. “I’m not necessarily against it, but there should be adjustments,” maybe, he suggested, by prorating the available points for 54-hole events.

But Rahm, a PGA Tour star, added of LIV: “They do have some incredible players. To say that Dustin wasn’t one of the best players this year would be a mistake.”

Bickering over golf rankings is not quite as old as the sport itself, but it hardly started with LIV’s founding.

The system that became the O.W.G.R. debuted in 1986 as the Sony Ranking. Ostensibly created to sort the planet’s best golfers — the PGA Tour money list had been regarded as the most sensible measure of a player’s fortunes — the ranking was initially seen in some quarters as a glossy way for a powerful agent to elevate the profiles of his firm’s clients. There was even a derisive nickname for the system: the “Phony Ranking.”

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Views eventually softened, and now there is little mistaking the ranking’s widespread, if sometimes begrudging, acceptance, or its links to the golf establishment. Its governing board includes the leaders of the P.G.A. of America, the R&A, the U.S. Golf Association and some of the world’s most elite tours.

The O.W.G.R. has said almost nothing publicly about LIV’s application. By the end of last year, though, the ranking’s technical committee had completed a review of LIV’s application, according to three people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the confidential process. The milestone shifted the application to another committee, this one including representatives of the major tournaments, to render a verdict.

The technical committee concluded that the new circuit easily cleared some of the standards for inclusion, such as sponsorship from a tour that may propose new members (in this case, the Asian Tour) and a commitment to abide by golf’s playing rules. But the panel, according to people involved in the process, flagged what some members regarded as serious shortcomings in LIV’s model, which some thought made it a “closed shop.”

Officials fretted over the absence of an open qualifying school — tournaments that can allow players to join a circuit — before the start of LIV seasons, although league officials have argued that their “promotions” event suffices. And beyond the 54-hole nature of LIV tournaments, there were widespread worries about the league’s reliance on 48-player fields, which are far smaller than typical for professional circuits, and concerns that LIV golfers’ ownership stakes around the league could affect performances. Even now, skeptics note, LIV has not been around long enough to participate in the system.

But LIV executives and players have focused on a particular lifeline: that the ranking’s most senior leaders have absolute discretion over admissions, including the authority to set aside any eligibility guideline.

The major tournaments that use the rankings as an entry method have similar powers and are not obligated to employ the formula in the future, but no organizer has even hinted at plans to abandon the ranking. Unless Augusta National, for instance, alters its protocol, many of the 18 LIV players in the Masters field this year could be left out as soon as 2024.

A handful face far less risk. In Augusta, many golfers and executives anticipate that past Masters winners will maintain their traditional lifetime privileges to play the tournament. But less renowned LIV players know that this turn at Augusta National could be their last — unless, for example, they finish in the top 12 this year.

“It amps up the pressure,” said Harold Varner III, who made his Masters debut last year but said he had accepted the possibility of being left out of future major fields. (“My goal over all through all of this was, what was best for golf — and getting paid,” he said.)

Even players who have proven capable of winning majors have confessed to fears that they could eventually be left out of some of golf’s most venerated events.

“Augusta is one of the places where you want to play every year,” said Smith, who, if the rules remain unchanged, will qualify for the Masters through at least 2027 by virtue of his British Open win last July but currently has no guarantees beyond that. “Until these rankings get sorted, it’s definitely going to be in the back of my mind for sure.”

He has, though, often resisted the urge to lash out in personal terms, even as his ambitions of reaching No. 1 have darkened for now.

“I made my bed, and I’m happy to sleep in it,” Smith, who was reportedly promised at least $100 million in guaranteed money if he joined LIV, said recently on an Arizona patio. “But at the same time, I think there’s an argument for coming to a golf tournament and knowing who you have to beat.”

If Smith, or one of his LIV colleagues, wins at Augusta in the coming days, his ranking will surely soar. The Masters, after all, is an eligible tournament.

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