As the Rolex Rankings roll into a 15th season it stands as the standard of quality against which history is gauged in women’s golf. Since its debut Feb. 21, 2006, the ranking has been embraced by eight tours, the LPGA majors, the Solheim Cup, International Crown and – as will dramatically unfold this year – the Olympic Games.
The rankings have also been a perfect mirror of the global growth of the women’s game. Annika Sorenstam of Sweden was the first No. 1 and held that spot for 60 weeks. She was followed by Lorena Ochoa of Mexico, who ran off a record 158 weeks as best in the world, until May 2, 2010, a couple weeks after she retired at the age of 28.
In all, the 14 players who have reached No. 1 in the Rolex Rankings come from nine different countries – South Korea, Taiwan, New Zealand, China, Thailand, Japan and the United States as well as Mexico and Sweden. Currently sitting on top of the world is Jin Young Ko of South Korea, last year’s LPGA Rolex Player of the Year, who is decisively the best in the world.
As the LPGA Tour heads east for five weeks – ISPS Handa Vic Open, ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open, Honda LPGA Thailand, HSBC Women’s World Championship in Singapore and the Blue Bay LPGA in China – Ko has a commanding lead of more than 2.5 points over No. 2, her fellow Korean Sung Hyun Park. But Ko has a ton of talent peeking over her shoulder.
There is virtually the same gap between No. 2 Park and No. 18 So Yeon Ryu as there is between Park and Ko. And the space between Park, No. 3 Nelly Korda, No. 4 Nasa Hataoka, No. 5 Dannielle Kang and No. 6 Sei Young could be covered with a golf towel – barely more than a point.
What’s clear as the LPGA begins the sprint to the first major of the year at the ANA Inspiration is that anyone with designs on catching Ko will need to do exactly that – catch her. And that means going out and winning a few times, including a major. If Ko’s brief history tells us anything it’s that she’s not coming back to the pack.
In her first two LPGA seasons, Ko has made 46 of 47 cuts with 25 top-10s. Her six wins include two majors – the ANA Inspiration and the Evian Championship last year, when she was also T-3 in the AIG Women’s British Open, T-14 in the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship and T-16 in the U.S. Women’s Open. That kind of consistency racks up a lot of world ranking points.
Of the 14 players who have reached No. 1 in the history of the Rolex Rankings, there have been two Americans. Cristie Kerr held the top spot three different times between 2010-13 while Stacy Lewis had it twice, the last time Oct. 26, 2014. That was the last time an American was best in the world.
But with Nelly Korda at No. 3, Danielle Kang at No. 5 and Lexi Thompson at No. 10, there are a trio of Yanks poised to make a move. Since Oct. 28, 2018, Korda has won three LPGA events, once on the LET and had a 3-0-1 record in the Solheim Cup. Kang has one win each of the last three years, which moved her from No. 68 in the Rolex Rankings at the end of 2016 to No. 5.
Korda, Kang and Thompson also have a leg up on qualifying for the U.S. women’s team in Olympic golf, which will be in Japan this summer. The four highest-ranked players from a country qualify for the Olympics, if they are in the top 15 of the Rolex Rankings. Otherwise, it’s the two highest-ranked golfers from the country.
There is still a chance that the U.S. can qualify a fourth player. Jessica Korda is currently No. 17 in the world rankings while Lizette Salas is No. 19. Brittany Altomare, Marina Alex, Angel Yin, Megan Khang and Kristen Gillman are also in the top 50.
The most intense competition – as it was in 2016 – is to be among the quartet representing South Korea in the Olympics. As of now that would be Jin Young Ko (No. 1), Sung Hyun Park (No. 2), Sei Young Kim (No. 6) and Jeongeun Lee6 (No. 8).
The defending gold medal winner, Inbee Park, is sitting in sixth place among the Koreans at No. 16, four spots behind Hyo-Joo Kim. So Yeon Ryu is very much in the hunt at No. 18 with Amy Yang at No. 20 and Mi Jung Hur at No. 21. The Rolex Rankings on June 29 – the day after the KPMG Women’s PGA – will determine the Olympic Qualifiers.
Clearly, the Rolex Rankings have done everything the creators dreamed, providing an accurate measuring stick for talent in women’s golf as well as a talking point for debates. As the world ranking enters its 15th season there are two winners: The fans and those events looking to put forward the best field possible.
While Jin Young Ko enters the new season as a solid No. 1, the opportunity for volatility in the scramble behind her is apparent. Just as it did when it first appeared in 2006, the Rolex Rankings has set the stage for an exciting season ahead.