Golf has a new magic number.
This one is found in the world ranking, not on a scorecard. For all the talk over the last six months about who’s No. 1, what really matters in this era of global golf is being safe within the top 50.
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Chad Campbell understands that as well as anyone.
For the better part of four years, Campbell was a regular among the top 50 in the world, and it made life easy. He could count on playing the four majors, three World Golf Championships, the invitation tournaments hosted by Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. With few exceptions, he could play wherever and whenever he wanted.
It’s no longer that simple.
Campbell has not won since the end of 2007. Worse yet, he has plunged to No. 174 in the world.
“This year, I wasn’t in anything,” he said. “I’d like to play better so I can get in the top 50 and pick where I want to play, and build my schedule around the majors. It’s key to be exempt for them and to avoid the qualifiers, which are brutal, and which are fresh on my mind.”
Campbell made it through one qualifier Monday with a 65 that earned him a spot in the British Open. Next up is a U.S. Open qualifier on June 6. Such is the life of those who aren’t entrenched in the elite in the world ranking.
Sergio Garcia is getting a taste of what it’s like outside the top 50.
He wasn’t eligible for the World Golf Championships this year for the first time in more than a decade, and he might miss the U.S. Open and British Open for the first time in a dozen years. PGA Tour officials were prompted a month ago to make sure the Spaniard was going to add enough events to satisfy his minimum requirement of 15 events.
What’s the value of being in the top 50?
“That’s kind of the golden ticket these days,” Justin Leonard said.
Leonard joined the PGA Tour in 1994, when the world ranking was just another statistic and the World Golf Championships were only a concept that Greg Norman was trying to push through. For PGA Tour players, the money list was second in importance to winning.
“Really, you wanted to be in the top 60 or top 70, because then you knew you were in Bay Hill, Memorial and Colonial,” Leonard said. “Not a whole lot was made about the world ranking. All the criteria to get in events was off the money list or winning tournaments.”
Leonard was part of the top 50 as recently as two years ago. Now he is at No. 178 and can count on only two big events this year -- the British Open as a past champion and the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational as a member of the last Presidents Cup team.
“It makes a huge difference,” Leonard said. “I don’t always know what tournaments I’m going to get in. I’ve played some events I haven’t played in a while because of that. It makes scheduling a lot harder.”
It didn’t take Rickie Fowler long to realize how the better half lives.
He played only 19 PGA Tour events as a pro before cracking the top 50 for the first time after a runner-up finish at the Memorial, and the 22-year-old has been there ever since. Even though he hasn’t won a tournament yet, there are times it feels like he has.
“In a way, it’s like you won a tournament and get status for two years,” Fowler said. “If you’re in the top 50, you have status.”
The majority of the big events are still in America -- three of the four majors, three of the four World Golf Championships and the Players Championship -- although the world game is reflected by who is in the tournament, not where it is played.
When the Masters changed its criteria in late 1998 to include the world ranking, 33 out of the top 50 were Americans.
Now there are only 18. And now it’s more important than ever to be in that elite group.
“It’s pretty much everything,” said Scott Verplank, another player who has been on both sides of 50. “It’s all the majors, all the WGC deals. It’s an invitation to any tournament around the world. If you want to go play Qatar, they’re going to pay you to come over, so you can get more world ranking points. The thing has evolved into the most important ranking for eligibility for tournaments.”
Most of the players in the top 50 end up getting into the majors through other means, whether it’s winning or a money list. For example, only three players had to rely strictly on the world ranking to be exempt for the U.S. Open.
One of them was Peter Hanson at No. 49.
The Swede has been just inside or just outside the top 50 for the last several years. This was one of the rare times when Hanson was on the right side of 50 with a major championship berth on the line.
“To me, it’s been a barrier,” Hanson said. “We all want to play the biggest events, the majors. We want to compete against the best.”
One issue for Americans -- at least those who don’t travel much -- is that the meat of the PGA Tour season ends in September. What follows are three months of big events just about every week in Europe and Asia: Scotland, Shanghai, Singapore, Dubai.
Verplank ended his FedExCup season in 2008 at No. 48 in the world. By year’s end, he had dropped to No. 63. Campbell wouldn’t be surprised to see a change in the American way of thinking. He said if he finished a FedExCup season just inside the top 50, he would consider adding international events to try to stay there.
“If it meant top 50 in the world, and it came down to the last few weeks, I think I would go,” Campbell said. “It’s that important.”