“Golfers start to peak in their thirties.” I’ve probably heard that adage a million times in my life. Having personally peaked in 9th grade, it never sat well with me. Watching teenagers like 19 year-old Joaquin Niemann rack up over a million dollars in just eleven starts (four top-10 finishes) made me wonder if this game is getting a lot younger a lot faster than people realize. With a little help from David Beeder, I dug into the data to find out.
The premise: Compile the ages of the top 200 players of the Official World Golf Ranking (OWGR) from August of the 2018, 2013, 2008, 2003 and 1998 seasons to see what story the data would tell. Would a trend develop, or would the ‘golfers-peak-in-their-thirties’ axiom hold water? Fully accepting the imperfections of the OWGR and the fact that outliers exist in every data set, I crunched the numbers to see what could be learned. I chose the top 200 because it seemed like a number that somewhat guarantees you a spot on a major tour.
The Mean and The Median
The average age of the Top 200 (the mean) and the age in the middle of each season (the median.)
There is not much of a difference between mean and median in this data set, which is to be expected. At a cursory glance, there’s only a slight difference between 1998-2018. Just three years, right? But it’s actually a fairly significant drop. After all, we don’t have any 12-year-olds in this data set (yet), and the oldest player to crack the top 200 was 56 years old (Jumbo Ozaki at #180 in 2003). Once we dump some outliers, we’re basically dealing with a bunch of guys between ages 25 and 40, which means the 3-year drop is about 20%. That’s fairly substantial.
Grouping the top 200 by age range paints a dystopian picture for players closing in on their late thirties. The percentage of players 36 & over has fallen from 41% in 1998 to just 24% today. Meanwhile, the 30 & under category has risen from 27% in 1998 to 49% currently. Maybe the most alarming jump: the 24 & under grouping has gone up 233%- and that’s not including could-be-breakout players like Norman Xiong, Doug Ghin, Cameron Champ and Sean Crocker who are capable and waiting to strike. Not to mention, there’s a whole gang of young guns on the Web.com Tour who go deep.
From the Top to the Bottom
When you group the top 20 players, there’s a huge drop-off - almost 5 years - from 1998 to 2018. Similar story with the bottom 20; a drop of 3.5 years. Make of that what you will, but to me it sounds like the kids are alright, and they’re hungry like the wolf.
The Amateurs aren’t amateurs
“Back in the day juniors had their state amateur, state junior, and you might play in the USGA Junior, but that was about it,” said Matt Williamson, former captain of the Rice University Owls. “Then once the AJGA came along, all of these kids were essentially on Tour, and everything changed. They surround themselves with all the same trappings the professionals have. Every major college has Trackman, a swing coach and a mental coach. So do the top juniors, and a lot of them are home schooled. These kids have every advantage, and they come out ready.” To Williamson’s point, if you’re one of the dozen or so people who watched more than one episode of Driven on the Golf Channel, you surely noticed the private jet the Oklahoma State team traveled on. It’s good to be a Cowboy.
The Game is Global
The international reach of the game also seems to be a factor. Of the twenty players aged 24 & under, fourteen are international players. Of those fourteen, only Jon Rahm attended college (Matthew Fitzpatrick’s cup of coffee at Northwestern doesn’t count), while the rest jumped into the fray as teenagers. Turning professional in your teen years is a common occurrence outside the United States. Consider the global sport icons who never played college sports - McIlroy, Federer, Day, Messi, Sergio, Ronaldo - all went pro young. Nothing like trial by fire to see if you’ve got the chops to make a living playing a sport.
And of course, there’s the Tiger Woods effect. The guys that are creeping up on 40 still have plenty of game, but guess what else they have plenty of? Money. And they can thank Tiger Woods for it.
A case study of Tiger’s financial impact on the Top 200:
By 1998, Mike Hulbert was reaching the autumn of his PGA Tour career. He was ranked 190th and had earned a more-than-respectable $4,000,000 with the bulk coming between 1985-1998. Adjusting for inflation, Hulbert’s career take was about $6.2 million in today’s money. He had almost 600 PGA Tour starts, a very solid career including three PGA Tour wins and three more Silly Season wins for a total of six titles.
Will McGirt, age 39 and ranked 176th, has played seven seasons on the PGA Tour. He’s had 228 starts, including one victory at the 2016 Memorial and winning almost $11,000,000. Chris Stroud, ranked 199th, has also had a solid career with 321 starts, one win, and just north of $11,000,000 in earnings.
Hulbert, with more wins than McGirt and Stroud combined, made $6.2 to their combined $22 million in roughly the same amount of starts.
The point here is, once you pay for the house on the lake and get the bass boat you want, why live like a vagabond trying to beat kids blowing it 50 yards past you all day? Call it a day and fish. Watch your little ones grow up. Coach the basketball team. Write for golf blogs. Enjoy life. But if you ‘really love competing’ and staying in Hilton Garden Inns across this great land of ours, I have your solution.
A New Mid-Champions Tour
Imagine a Mid-Champions Tour for players 40 and over with courses that are a little shorter, a little more interesting, and where the long putter is completely banned. Shorts are allowed, dogs are allowed, no ropes; just a bunch of folks playing golf who are fully mic’d for sound. The host club gets to select an exempt player from their membership. Coverage could be streamed on Amazon with a weekly Calcutta right on your Prime app (Jeff Bezos gets 10%.) And it’s Open play- if Karrie Webb or Se Ri Pak want to come qualify, let ‘em in. You can still have the senior majors be for players over 50, but this tour feels more like League Night except there’s $500,000 on the line over three rounds with guys like Matt Kuchar, Pat Perez and Ryan Palmer out there slinging it. Would you watch that product? I would binge watch that action.
Looking Back Through The Years
What a gem of a year. One-hit wonder Chumbawamba was continually getting knocked down yet getting back up again, France won the World Cup, and two guys in California founded a little company called Google. Looking back at the 1998 OWGR top 200, Tiger Woods is #1, a position he would hold until 2004 (Vijay). Squarely in the middle at #100 is Kenny Perry, and rounding out the top 200 is an Aussie journeyman named Brad King. Apologies to Tiger, but the outlier here is Masashi “Jumbo” Ozaki, who at age 51 was holding on strong to the #13 ranking. His place on the list is due to his dominance of the Japanese Tour, where he was the leading money winner every year from 1994-98. How his nickname wasn’t The Yen Master is beyond me.
2003 was kind of a mess. Fred Rogers, Johnny Cash and Bob Hope all died. Steve Bartman happened. The sole redemption of ’03 was Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below album. Golf produced the lamest major champions in recent memory (Weir, Furyk, Curtis, Micheel). The age range of the top 200 started to show variety. Most of the players that were in the 40-45 range in 1998 gently climbed into the 45-50 range, while a notable pack started forming in the sub-25 group. 56-year-old Jumbo is still holding on like you knew he would. Tiger stays #1, Tim Petrovic is the middle man at #100 and Marco Dawson is #200.
Remember waking up on July 20th, 2008 and screaming “I can’t believe Greg Norman’s going to win The Open!”? Norman didn’t win, but The Shark landed on our scatter chart. Also, Rory debuts on the chart at the tender age of 19. There’s another 19 year-old named Oliver Fisher ranked just ahead of Rory, but he’s not playing much anymore. Tiger is #1, Kevin Sutherland is #100 and Jay Williamson is #200. Sadly, Jumbo Ozaki has left the top 200 (but he does enter the World Golf Hall of Fame three years later).
The year we learned from Manti Te’o that meeting girls online can be really dangerous. From a cultural perspective, Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories was the high mark. Tiger was still #1, Rafa Cabrera-Bello was at #100 and former AJGA wonderkid-turned-Web.com Tour player Casey Wittenberg was #200. Some 20-year-olds crack the top 50: Matteo Manassero is #29, Jordan Spieth is #36 and 21-year-old Hideki Matsuyama is #28. After you’re done wondering what ever happened to Matteo, note the density level starting to form under 30.
And finally we reach 2018. France has once again won the World Cup, Google has grown to a monster touching almost every aspect of our lives, and some guy named Post Malone is a rap star. Your new King of The Hill is Dustin Johnson, James Hahn is #100 and 22 year-old Korean Wang Jeung-hun is #200. The number of players under 30 is notably higher. The wave is coming.
Where Is Golf Headed?
Data can be a funny thing. As former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli famously quipped, “there are lies, damned lies and statistics.” But if you’ve been to an NCAA event or even an AJGA event, you already know the score: these young bucs ain’t playin’. And if the Tour continues to favor bomb-and-gouge golf and nothing is done to curb technology, my money says the fields get even younger. The phrase “one and done” may soon be more closely associated with Oklahoma State golf than Kentucky basketball.
Maybe it’s time to address the other side of the equation. Should the Champions Tour start at 40? Maybe 45? Consider this: every week on the PGA Tour, sponsors give exemptions to players who have been loyal to their respective events over the years. These players (typically in their late thirties or forties) may be well outside the top 200, but they get the nod because they’ve been supportive for years, sometimes even decades. They seldom capitalize on these sponsor exemptions. Meanwhile, some up-and-comer with partial status gets bumped and is that much closer to being short game instructor at Doral instead of getting the chance to live out his dream.
Jordan Spieth won the John Deere when he was 19. Matteo Manassero won twice on the European tour before he was 18. Don’t be surprised if one day very soon some teenager steps up and wins a big one. Like 17 year-old Boris Becker winning Wimbledon kind of big one. And then the floodgates will really open.