Woods in position to qualify for Olympics – but there's a catch

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Tiger Woods’ 2020 debut inched him a little bit closer to a potential spot on the U.S. Olympic team. But when it comes to the math of the Official World Golf Ranking, sometimes looks can be deceiving.

Woods has spoken openly about his desire to represent the U.S. this summer in Tokyo at age 44 and the fact that he faces an arduous task just to qualify. While most countries can send a maximum of two players into the 60-man field, the U.S. is expected to have four participants since all four will likely be ranked inside the top 15 in the world at the June 22 cutoff.

Woods’ T-9 finish at Torrey Pines, combined with a missed cut from Xander Schauffele and a middling finish from Patrick Cantlay the previous week in Abu Dhabi, proved to be good news for Woods’ Olympic hopes. According to the latest OWGR standings, Woods is No. 6 in the world and the fourth highest-ranked American behind Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas and Dustin Johnson. It means that if the Olympic cutoff were made today, he’d be on his way to Japan.

Koepka, DJ noncommittal on U.S. Olympic plans

But here’s the catch. The OWGR computes rankings based on a two-year rolling window, with point values for tournament results depreciating as time goes on. The Olympic rankings will mirror the OWGR by June, but for now players are receiving points in the OWGR for results in early 2018 that will age off before the Olympic teams are finalized. It also means that some significant results, like Woods’ victories at the Masters and the 2018 Tour Championship, will be worth fewer points by June.

Looking at results only since June 2018 – ones that will still count in the final Olympic rankings – and adjusting their weight based on how those points will count in June 2020, Woods is actually fifth among Americans and essentially in first-alternate position for the Olympics. Those projections would put him behind both Schauffele and Cantlay, who are actually in better position to qualify for Tokyo than it may currently seem.

The biggest change between the current and projected U.S. rankings centers around Johnson. While he’s the third-ranked American right now, his strong play in early 2018 (and Memphis victory in June 2018) won’t count for Olympic purposes. So he’s actually seventh in the projected U.S. standings, behind Schauffele, Cantlay, Woods and Patrick Reed.

Of course, based on Johnson’s recent Olympic comments, and the fact that he skipped the 2016 Olympics, that potential slide might not be especially impactful. There are also plenty of notable events offering big points to top finishers before the June cutoff, meaning the standings for the U.S. and other countries could change significantly in the coming weeks.

But should a player like Johnson or Koepka decide to bypass a spot in Tokyo, the names that are next in line in the U.S. standings would be of great importance. Recall that prior to the 2016 Olympics, both Johnson and Jordan Spieth opted out of the competition. That allowed alternates Reed and Matt Kuchar to claim spots, and Kuchar – despite being the sixth-highest American at the final cutoff – ended up leaving Rio with a bronze medal.