Does age really matter in golf? Yes, it does

By Joe PosnanskiApril 2, 2014, 7:10 pm

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.


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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.

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What's in the bag: CareerBuilder winner Rahm

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 22, 2018, 10:37 pm

Jon Rahm defeated Andrew Landry in a playoff to earn his second PGA Tour title at the CareerBuilder Challenge. Here's what's in his bag:

Driver: TaylorMade M4 (9.5 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Fairway wood: TaylorMade M3 (19 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Irons: TaylorMade P790 (3), P750 (4-PW), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Wedges: TaylorMade Milled Grind (52, 56 degrees), Milled Grind Hi-Toe (60 degrees), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Putter: TaylorMade Spider Tour Red

Ball: TaylorMade TP5x

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Strange irked by Rahm-Landry friendly playoff

By Jason CrookJanuary 22, 2018, 9:45 pm

Curtis Strange knows a thing or two about winning golf tournaments, and based on his reaction to the CareerBuilder Challenge playoff on Sunday, it’s safe to say he did things a little differently while picking up 17 PGA Tour victories in his Hall-of-Fame career.

While Jon Rahm and Andrew Landry were “battling” through four extra holes, Strange, 62, tweeted his issues with the duo’s constant chit-chat and friendly banter down the stretch at La Quinta Country Club, where Rahm eventually came out on top.

The two-time U.S. Open champ then engaged with some followers to explain his point a little more in depth.

So, yeah ... don't think he's changing his perspective on this topic anytime soon ever.

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Randall's Rant: The Euros won't just roll over

By Randall MellJanuary 22, 2018, 9:36 pm

The Ryder Cup may not be the King Kong of golf events yet, but you can hear the biennial international team event thumping its chest a full eight months out.

As anticipation for this year’s big events goes, there is more buzz about Europe’s bid to hold off a rejuvenated American effort in Paris in September than there is about the Masters coming up in April.

Thank Europe’s phenomenal success last weekend for that.

And Rory McIlroy’s impassioned remarks in Abu Dhabi.

And the provocative bulletin board material a certain Sports Illustrated writer provided the Europeans a couple months ago, with a stinging assault on the Euro chances that read like an obituary.

McIlroy was asked in a news conference before his 2018 debut last week what he was most excited about this year.

The Ryder Cup topped his list.

Though McIlroy will be trying to complete the career Grand Slam at Augusta National come April, he talked more about the Ryder Cup than he did any of the game’s major championships.

When asked a follow-up about the American team’s resurgence after a task-force overhaul and the injection of young, new star power, McIlroy nearly started breaking down the matchup. He talked about the young Americans and how good they are.

“Yeah, the Americans have been, obviously, very buoyant about their chances and whatever, but it’s never as easy as that. ... The Ryder Cup’s always close,” McIlroy said. “I think we’ll have a great team, and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”



McIlroy may have been talking about Alan Shipnuck’s bold prediction after the American Presidents Cup rout last fall.

Or similar assertions from TV analysts.

“The Ryder Cup is dead – you just don’t know it yet,” Shipnuck wrote. “One of the greatest events in sport is on the verge of irrelevancy. The young, talented, hungry golfers from the United States, benefitting from the cohesive leadership of the Task Force era, are going to roll to victory in 2018 in Paris.”

European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn won’t find words that will motivate the Euros more than that as he watches his prospective players jockey to make the team.

And, boy, did they jockey last weekend.

The Euros dominated across the planet, not that they did it with the Ryder Cup as some rallying cry, because they didn’t. But it was a heck of an encouraging start to the year for Bjorn to witness.

Spain’s Jon Rahm won the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour, England’s Tommy Fleetwood started the week at Abu Dhabi paired with American and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and won the European Tour event, and Spain’s Sergio Garcia won the Singapore Open in a rout on the Asian Tour.

And McIlroy looked close to being in midseason form, tying for third in his first start in three months.

Yes, it’s only January, and the Ryder Cup is still a long way off, with so much still to unfold, but you got an early sense from McIlroy how much defending European turf will mean to him and the Euros in Paris in September.

The Masters is great theater, the U.S. Open a rigorous test, The Open and the PGA Championship historically important, too, but the Ryder Cup touches a nerve none of those do.

The Ryder Cup stokes more fervor, provokes more passion and incites more vitriol than any other event in golf.

More bulletin board material, too.

Yeah, it’s a long way off, but you can already hear the Ryder Cup’s King Kong like footsteps in its distant approach. Watching how the American and European teams come together will be an ongoing drama through spring and summer.

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Quail Hollow officials promise players easier conditions

By Rex HoggardJanuary 22, 2018, 9:14 pm

Quail Hollow Club - a staple on the PGA Tour since 2003 - debuted as a longer, tougher version of itself at last year’s PGA Championship, receiving mixed reviews from players.

The course played to a lengthened 7,600 yards at last year’s PGA and a 73.46 stroke average, the toughest course in relation to par on Tour in 2017. As a result, it left some players less than excited to return to the Charlotte, N.C.-area layout later this spring for the Wells Fargo Championship.

It’s that lack of enthusiasm that led officials at Quail Hollow to send a video to players saying, essentially, that the course players have lauded for years will be back in May.

The video, which includes Quail Hollow president Johnny Harris and runs nearly five minutes, begins with an explanation of how the first hole, which played as a 524-yard par 4 at the PGA, will play much shorter at the Wells Fargo Championship.

“I had a number of my friends who were playing in the tournament tell me that tee was better suited as a lemonade stand,” Harris joked of the new tee box on the fourth hole. “I doubt we’ll ever see that tee used again in competition.”

Harris also explained that the greens, which became too fast for some, will be “softer” for this year’s Wells Fargo Championship.