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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Stricker shares first-round lead in South Dakota

By Associated PressSeptember 22, 2018, 12:48 am

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. - Steve Stricker shot a 7-under 63 on Friday to share the first-round lead at the Sanford International.

The 51-year-old Stricker was 8 under through 17 holes at chilly, rain-softened Minnehaha Country Club but closed with a bogey to fall into a tie with Jerry Smith, Brandt Jobe and David McKenzie.

Stricker only got to play seven holes in the pro-am because of rain that prevented the field from getting in much practice.

''You've just kind of got to trust your yardage book and hit to the spots and then try to make a good game plan on the way into the green, too, not really knowing where to hit it or where to miss it up there on the green. Sometimes it's good, too,'' Stricker said. ''You go around and you're focused a lot more on hitting it to a specific spot and not knowing what lies ahead in the course. So I guess today was the ultimate 'Take one hole at a time' because we didn't really know anything else, what was coming.''


Full-field scores from the Sanford International


Stricker has two wins and has not finished worse than fifth in six starts this season on the over-50 tour as he continues to play a part-time schedule on the PGA Tour. Next week, he will be one of U.S. Ryder Cup captain Jim Furyk's assistants at the matches outside Paris.

McKenzie, a 51-year-old Australian, had two eagles on the back nine, holing a wedge from 116 yards on the par-5 16th.

''We got told ... to play faster on No. 16, and so my caddie just said, 'Hit it in the hole so you don't have to putt it,' so I just did what he told me,'' McKenzie said.

Smith had eagles on Nos. 4 and 12.

''Honestly, I was just trying to hit some good shots and I really wasn't with the irons,'' Smith said. ''I just really didn't like the way I hit them today. You know, just the putter was the big difference for me. I just felt good with it all day, especially say outside of 10, 15 feet, where I felt like I was a lot.''

Scott McCarron, Lee Janzen and Paul Goydos were one shot back. McCarron came in second in the Charles Schwab Cup money standings behind Miguel Angel Jimenez, who is not playing this week.

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Glover (64) leads Web.com Tour Championship

By Associated PressSeptember 22, 2018, 12:12 am

ATLANTIC BEACH, Fla. – Former U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover shot his second consecutive 7-under 64 on Friday to take a one-shot lead at the Web.com Tour Championship.

The 38-year-old Glover, who won the 2009 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, can still regain his PGA Tour card through a medical extension if he fails to earn enough money in the four-tournament Web.com Tour Finals. But a high finish this weekend at Atlantic Beach Country Club would take care of everything.

''I've got a lot to fall back on regardless of this week, but any time I tee it up, I want to play well,'' Glover said. ''Tomorrow won't be any different. Sunday won't be any different.''

Glover had arthroscopic knee surgery in June and will have eight starts to earn 53 FedEx Cup points and keep his card. He earned $17,212 in the first three Web.com Tour Finals events. The top 25 money winners in the series earn PGA Tour cards, and the final card went for $40,625 last year.

Glover was at 14-under 128. Denny McCarthy, who has already earned enough money to secure a return to the PGA Tour, was one shot back. McCarthy, a former Virginia player, has a shot at winning the Finals money list, which would guarantee him fully exempt status and entry into The Players Championship.


Full-field scores from the Web.com Tour Championship


''There's no secret about it. I'll come out and tell you I'm here to win this tournament and get that No. 1 spot,'' McCarthy said. ''I've been hungry for a while. I have a pretty hungry attitude and I'm going to stay hungry.''

Tour veteran Cameron Tringale, who has earned just $2,660 after missing two of the first three cuts, was 12 under after a 67. Last year, Tringale entered the Web.com Tour Championship at 63rd on the Finals money list and finished tied for fifth to get back onto the PGA Tour. He struggled again this season, though, missing 19 cuts in 26 starts.

''Yeah, I was hoping last year was my last time here, but I do have a comfort at this golf course and I'm excited to keep pressing,'' Tringale said.

The four-tournament series features the top 75 players from the Web.com regular-season money list, Nos. 126-200 in the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup standings, and non-members with enough money to have placed in the top 200. The top 25 finishers on the Web.com regular-season money list are competing against each other for tour priority, with regular-season earnings counting in their totals.

Sepp Straka and Ben Silverman were three shots back. Each would likely need a top-5 finish to earn his card.

Peter Malnati, who regained his card with a second-place finish in the opening finals event, followed his opening-round 74 with a 9-under 62, shooting an 8-under 27 on his second nine.

Four-time PGA Tour winner Aaron Baddeley was among those who missed the cut. He was 22nd on the finals money list going in and likely will fall short of earning his card.

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Thomas (69) only three back with 'C' or 'D' game

By Rex HoggardSeptember 21, 2018, 11:56 pm

ATLANTA – Justin Thomas was tied for fourth place following his second-round 69 on Friday at the Tour Championship, which considering the state of his game on Day 2 was an accomplishment.

“I wish I had my 'B' game today. I would say I had my 'C' or 'D' game today,” he laughed.

Thomas’ struggles were primarily with his driver and he hit just 6 of 14 fairways at East Lake, but he was able to scramble late in his round with birdies at Nos. 15 and 18 to remain three off the lead.


Projected FedExCup standings

Full-field scores from the Tour Championship

Tour Championship: Articles, photos and videos


“I drove it so poorly today, this is probably in my top 5 rounds of the year I'm most proud of just because I easily could have shot 4- or 5-over par today and not had a chance to win the tournament,” he said. “I hung in there and birdied two of the last four, and I have a chance.”

Thomas was slowed the last two weeks by a right wrist injury that limited his preparation for the finale and said the issue with his driver is timing and the byproduct of a lack of practice.

Thomas made up for his erratic driving with his short game, getting up and down four out of seven times including on the fourth hole when he missed the fairway well left, punched out short of the green and chipped in from 81 feet.

“[Rory McIlroy] just kind of said it looked like a ‘3’ the whole day and I kind of laughed because I played with him at The Players and I chipped in three times that first round with him, so I guess he's good luck for me,” Thomas said.

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McIlroy two behind Woods, Rose after 68

By Rex HoggardSeptember 21, 2018, 11:46 pm

ATLANTA – Maybe it should be no huge surprise that Rory McIlroy finds himself back in contention at the Tour Championship. It is, after all, a Ryder Cup year.

In 2016, McIlroy won the finale before heading to Hazeltine and posting a 3-2-0 record. In ’14, he finished runner-up to Billy Horschel and went 2-1-2 at the Ryder Cup; and in ’12 he finished tied for 10th place at East Lake and went 3-2-0 at Medinah.

“I was on such a high a couple of years ago going into Hazeltine after winning the whole thing, and I felt great about my game that week and played well. I won three matches,” McIlroy said. “I guess it doesn't matter whether it's a match play event or whatever. If you're playing well and you've played well the week before, I think most people can carry it into the next week, whatever that is.”


Projected FedExCup standings

Full-field scores from the Tour Championship

Tour Championship: Articles, photos and videos


McIlroy’s performance this week certainly qualifies as “playing well.” He charged out on Friday with birdies at two of his first three holes and bounced back from a pair of late bogeys to shoot a 68 and was in third place and two strokes off the lead held by Tiger Woods and Justin Rose.

“I've made 12 birdies in 36 holes, which is really good around here, and that's with not birdieing either of the par 5s today,” he said. “So yeah, just tidy up the mistakes a little bit.”