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.


Tiger vs. Snead and Nicklaus

Check out Tiger's road to catching Sam Snead and Jack Nicklaus' victory records


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.

Photo by Enrique Berardi/LAAC

Top-ranked amateur Niemann one back at LAAC in Chile

By Nick MentaJanuary 21, 2018, 8:44 pm

Argentina’s Jaime Lopez Rivarola leads the Latin America Amateur Championship at 5 under par following a round of 3-under 68 Saturday in Chile.

The former Georgia Bulldog is now 36 holes from what would be a return trip to Augusta National but his first Masters.

"The truth is that I crossed off on my bucket list playing Augusta [National], because I happened to play there," Rivarola said. "I've played every year with my university. But playing in the Masters is a completely different thing. I have been to the Masters, and I've watched the players play during the practice rounds. But [competing would be] a completely different thing."

He is followed on the leaderboard by the three players who competed in the playoff that decided last year’s LAAC in Panama: Joaquin Niemann (-4), Toto Gana (-4), and Alvaro Ortiz (-3).


Click here for full-field scores from the Latin America Amateur Championship


Chile’s Niemann is the top-ranked amateur in the world who currently holds conditional status on the Web.com Tour and is poised to begin his career as a professional, unless of course he takes the title this week. After a disappointing 74 in Round 1, Niemann was 10 shots better in Round 2, rocketing up the leaderboard with a 7-under 64.

“Today, I had a completely different mentality, and that's usually what happens in my case," Niemann said. "When I shoot a bad round, the following day I have extra motivation. I realize and I feel that I have to play my best golf. The key to being a good golfer is to find those thoughts and to transfer them into good golf."

Niemann’s fellow Chilean and best friend Gana is the defending champion who missed the cut at the Masters last year and is now a freshman at Lynn University. His second-round 70 was a roller coaster, complete with six birdies, three eagles and a double.

Mexico’s Ortiz, the brother of three-time Web.com Tour winner Carlos, was 6 under for the week before three back-nine bogeys dropped him off the pace.

Two past champions, Matias Dominguez and Paul Chaplet, sit 5 over and 7 over, respectively.

The winner of the Latin America Amateur Championship earns an invite to this year’s Masters. He is also exempt into the The Amateur Championship, the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Open sectional qualifying, and Open Championship final qualifying.

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McIlroy gets back on track

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:

He is well ahead of schedule.

Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.

“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”

To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”

And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out. 

Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.

“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”

The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.

The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)

But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.

Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.

Everything in his life is lined up.

Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.

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Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.

Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.

There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.


Full-field scores from the Singapore Open


Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.

The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.

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Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.