Top 50 in the world the ‘golden ticket’ in golf

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.

Chad Campbell understand 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 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 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 FedEx Cup 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 FedEx Cup 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.”