Jordan Spieth might have reached his prime at 22, while Vijay Singh was 41. Tiger and Seve had two primes. When is a golfer at his best?
This article first appeared in the Fall 2015 edition of NCGA Golf.
BY ALAN SHIPNUCK
A few years ago former ESPN columnist Bill Simmons did a deep-dive on NFL quarterbacks. In weighing a trove of historical statistics he concluded that 32 is the average age a QB peaks—it is the moment when wisdom, experience and physical prowess are perfectly aligned. Football is obviously a more physical game than golf, but top quarterbacks can enjoy almost as much longevity as Tour players; this season Peyton Manning will be 39, Tom Brady a boyish 38. All of this has gotten us thinking about whether a similar metric can be applied to golfers. It should be trickier, because while virtually all quarterbacks are groomed in four-year college programs and arrive in the NFL at more or less the same age, golfers often take more circuitous routes to the big-time. But a sampling of the all-time greats reveals some interesting trends.
In the golden era of the game, golfers definitely followed the Simmons template. Jack Nicklaus peaked in 1972, the year he turned 32. Palmer peaked at 31, in 1960. Lee Trevino was 32 (’71), while Tom Watson hit his apex at 31 (’80). (A panel of experts determined the peak year for each player; by panel, I mean me.) As always, there are outliers: Johnny Miller was 27 (’74), although he didn’t peak so much as burn out. Gary Player was 39 (’74), although he says his most significant achievement came at 30, when he completed the career Grand Slam.
The early-30s trend continued throughout the transitional post-Watson era: Greg Norman was 31 (’86), Nick Faldo 33 (’90). Seve Ballesteros, always an iconoclast, actually peaked twice: at 26 (’83) and 31 (’88).
In more modern times there has been a sharp divergence, and as always the Tiger factor must be examined. In 2000, the year he turned 25, Woods had the greatest season in golf history, winning nine tournaments, including three major championships, setting an all-time scoring record at each. Interestingly, his caddie Steve Williams doesn’t consider this the peak; he believes Tiger played better from August 2007-June 2008, a stretch that included Woods’s 32nd birthday and ended abruptly with knee surgery. During that run, he teed it up 11 times, winning eight tournaments and finishing second twice. Among the victories were the U.S. Open and PGA Championship.
Woods changed the game in many significant ways. His emphasis on physical conditioning shamed his colleagues into going to the gym, and Tiger’s bravado, seething intensity and raw physicality attracted a younger, more athletic generation to the sport. His emergence as the most famous man on the planet drove monster TV contracts that flooded the PGA Tour with unprecedented riches.
Woods also has an underrated role in spawning the equipment revolution. Throughout the summer of his epic 2000 campaign he put in play a prototype of a solid-core Nike ball. Titleist had been experimenting with a version of its own with the unwieldy name Pro-V1, but felt it was at least a year away from being ready to come to market. Woods’ dominance led to a near-revolt among Titleist staffers, and in October 2000 they were given the first-generation of the Pro-V1. Golf would never be the same.
All of these Tiger factors—increased training, space-age equipment, big money—have affected Tour players’ peak. In the first generation after Woods’ arrival the peak years spiked from the early 30s to 40 becoming the new normal: Kenny Perry was 43 (’03), Vijay Singh 41 (’04), Padraig Harrington 37 (’08), Steve Stricker 42 (‘09), Jim Furyk 40 (’10).
“There’s no doubt equipment helped a lot of us older guys,” says Perry, who in 2008, at 48, had a three-win season that was almost as good as his ‘03. “I know I started hitting it farther in my 40s than my 20s. Some of that was technique, but mostly it was the ball and the driver. That allowed me to stay competitive much longer than I ever dreamed possible.”
The money kept them going, too. The generation that was born around 1970 was making a good living before Woods crashed the scene, but after the turn of the century, obscene amounts of dollars were there for the taking; in 2010, when he won the FedEx Cup, Furyk banked a life-changing $15 million in on-course earnings, plus a bunch more in endorsements. On the issue of peaking, Furyk says, “It’s different for everyone. They always say 30-35, when you’re still strong physically but also have that experience. But I think still having that drive and that hunger is the key.” I know if I had the chance to win $15 million, I’d be starving.
Furyk’s 2010 campaign was the start of a new epoch: the wounded-Tiger years. Woods had created an entirely new culture on Tour, but after being waylaid by his sex scandal there was suddenly a vacuum at the top of the game. It was quickly filled by a new generation of fearless young stars who are redefining the notion of when a player peaks. Jordan Spieth is clearly going to have a monster career, but it’s entirely likely he’s already seen the summit, at 22. Similarly, Rory McIlroy’s 2014 may represent his peak, at 25.
Given Jason Day’s constant injury problems, he may have just peaked at 27. What’s behind this early-onset?
“The young players coming out today are more equipped to win,” says Nick Watney. “They’re getting Tour-level instruction earlier, getting Tour-level equipment earlier, working out earlier. I think in the old days, guys showed up on Tour and had to learn to win. Not anymore.”
Says Boo Weekley, “College golf and amateur golf have gotten so big, so prestigious and they set ‘em up just like Tour events. These kids are like seasoned vets by the time they get out here.”
They also play a slightly different game. Singh rode to prominence by adopting a so-called “bomb ‘n gouge” style, hitting driver off nearly every tee under the theory that it’s better to be 50 or 100 yards down the fairway, even if you’re in the rough. This is second nature for twentysomethings who have grown up with solid-core balls and nuclear drivers.
“These young guys come out and they can all absolutely pound it,” says Bill Haas. “If they have a good putting week they can win anytime, anywhere.”
But while various factors have helped today’s stars peak earlier, it is an open question how long they can sustain the high-level of play, or if they will be able to enjoy a second peak, like fellow savants Woods and Ballesteros. Golf Digest estimates that McIlroy made $49 million in 2014, and it’s easy to imagine that Spieth will soon surpass him—given that, will they be able to keep the hunger that Furyk maintains is the key to success? Woods’ scandal begat a tabloidization of the sports media, coinciding perfectly with the dawn of the social media age. Young players now face 24/7 scrutiny on and off the course. Older (less interesting) pros don’t envy the constant attention. Says Furyk, “The energy it takes for the very best to play 20 events takes its toll, absolutely. Will that cause them to burn out faster? We’ll see, I guess.”
Indeed, despite the trends we have seen here, when a player peaks is a deeply personal concern, influenced by innumerable factors.
Says Watney, “Everybody’s journey is different—you don’t start at the same point, you don’t end at the same point. That’s what makes it so interesting.”
Alan Shipnuck is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated. His introduction to golf came as a cart boy at Pebble Beach Golf Links.