For a while, Peppermint Patty from the Peanuts cartoons believed that she had a message she was meant to spread throughout the world. That critical message was this: A ball hit in the air into foul ground behind third base is the shortstop’s ball. It is important. And it is true.
For a few years now, I feel like I’ve had a message, too, one few people seem to buy. The message is this: Professional golfers – like every other athlete – age at a much, much faster pace than you want to believe.
I’ll throw some numbers at you in a minute, but first let’s review. A few years ago (and probably too often since then), I wrote that I didn’t think Tiger Woods would break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championship victories. I didn’t write that with any joy – I’d love to be wrong and watch Woods break the record, because it would be a fantastic sports story. But the conclusion seemed obvious. I looked at a little bit at the history of golf and realized that what people kept saying about how golfers age more slowly than all other athletes just wasn’t true.
“Tiger will be contending at majors until he’s 50,” people would tell me.
No he won’t.
“Golfers are still at their peak in their late 30s and 40s,” they said.
No they’re not.
“The average age of a major champion is 37 or 38,” I heard.
No it isn’t.
Golf offers the illusion of timelessness. That’s why so many of us love the game. It’s a game you or I can play all our lives. And, on the highest level, Tom Watson can almost win the British Open at 59. Jack Nicklaus can wake the echoes at Amen Corner at 46. Phil Mickelson can win just one major championship before he turns 35 and then win four after that, including last year’s British Open at 43. It’s fantastic to watch great golfers stir memories.
“Phil Mickelson is six years older (than Tiger) and just won the British Open,” a reader named Eric Dunn tweeted today. “Age is irrelevant in golf.”
No, that’s not it. It’s more that Mickelson is a rare golfer. Saying that age isn’t irrelevant in golf because Mickelson won at 43 is like saying, “Brett Favre played quarterback when he was 41 so age is irrelevant in football” or “Jamie Moyer won 16 games when he was 45 so age is irrelevant in baseball.” Golfers don’t age at precisely the same pace as baseball pitchers, but it was a lot closer than I expected.
I looked at all the major champions going back to 1960, the year Arnold Palmer helped usher in the notion of golf’s Grand Slam as we now think of it. I realize only going back to 1960 does exclude Ben Hogan and Sam Snead and others who played very well into later ages, but those guys almost never played the British Open. Heck, they couldn’t even play all four in the same year because of scheduling. I don’t think it’s a fair comparison.
So, going back to 1960 here are some facts.
1. The average and median age for major champions is 32. It skews a little younger at the British Open (median of 31) and a little older at the PGA Championship (median of 33), but it’s basically 32. That number has stayed pretty constant for 50-plus years. That’s your peak: age 32.
2. Players 35 and younger have won more than three-quarters of all the majors since 1960. It may be hard to believe, but it’s a young man’s game.
3. Less than 10 percent – just 20 of 216 – of all majors were won by players 40 and over. It does happen, especially at the British Open (the last three British Open champions were all 40-somethings). But since 2000, only one golfer – 41-year-old Vijay Singh – has won a Masters, U.S. Open or PGA Championship.
4. Only two players in the last 54 years – Nicklaus in ’86 and Julius Boros in ’68 – were 46 or older when they won a Grand Slam title.
Here’s a quick chart of major championship winners by age if you are interested:
• Age 20-25: 24 (11%)
• Age 26-30: 64 (30%)
• Age 31-35: 76 (35%)
• Age 36-40: 34 (16%)
• Age 41-over: 19 (8%)
Then, as mentioned, I compared the aging pattern against major league pitchers. I used a statistic called Wins Above Replacement – which measures the value of a pitcher – but that’s not really important. There have been 216 major championships since 1960, and there have been 221 pitchers who had a season of 6.8 wins above replacement (that’s roughly a Cy Young quality season).
Here are those pitchers by age:
• Age 20-25: 62 (28%)
• Age 26-30: 86 (39%)
• Age 31-35: 60 (27%)
• Age 36-40: 12 (5.5%)
• Age 41-over: 1 (0.5%)
So, you can see that golfers tend to age at about the same rate as pitchers, only not quite at the same time. Golfers tend to start later. About two-thirds of the pitchers were 30 or younger while only four out of 10 of the major winners were that young. And golfers tend to end later.
The core age range for pitchers is roughly 23-36 – that is when they are at their best. Meanwhile for golfers, the core age range is just a little later, age 25-38. A few more pitchers are great in their young 20s. A few more golfers are great in their early 40s. But you will note that the range itself – about 16 years – is the same.
In fact, many of the best and most talented golfers of the last half-century stopped winning majors in their early 30s. Arnold Palmer won his last major at 34. Tom Watson won his last major at 33. Seve Ballesteros was just 31 when he win his last major. Johnny Miller, Curtis Strange, Fuzzy Zoeller, Jose Maria Olazabal, Fred Couples, Tom Weiskopf, Paul Azinger – none of these players won even one major championship after turning 35.
And, of course, Tiger Woods was 32 the last time he won a major, at the 2008 U.S. Open.
People sometimes mock the athletic grind of golf, but it’s real. In the last six years, Woods has had knee injuries, an elbow injury, a neck injury, an Achilles injury and a back injury. This year’s Masters will be the fifth major championships Woods has missed since winning that astonishing U.S. Open on one leg, and he missed the cut in two others. This is just the new reality. Woods, as he approaches 40, can still, on certain days and certain weekends, be a great golfer. But his body won’t let him be great on command, not anymore. Time is in charge.
But it’s more than just the body breaking down. Golfers, as a rule, are better when they’re younger. Putting is mostly a young man’s game. Power is mostly a young man’s game. Steadiness is a young man’s game. Experience and knowledge can make up for some of this, but not all of it. Yes, there are exceptions in golf, just like there are exceptions in every sport. But the general rule is still in place.
Woods will continue to fascinate for years. I think he has another major championship or two in him. Everyone will watch closely when he returns from this injury. His good days will inspire an overreaction just like his bad days will. Nicklaus has said it: Nobody ever played golf as well as Tiger did as a young man. But nobody in the last 50 years played golf as well as Jack Nicklaus did as an old man. And, as hard as it is to believe, that is a whole different skill.