Is Age Just A Number For Golfers?

Zachary Turcotte
By Zachary Turcotte December 12, 2014 03:00

Golf is a game filled with a lot of great statistics that can help you in evaluating each player or give you a headache in trying to process too much information. We will take a look at a different stat in each of these columns just to help give you an idea of how things are evolving in the game each year and what stats are useful to focus on, and which ones are simply going to take up extra brain cells.

Would it surprise you to know that there are actually PhD’s at major universities that study golf statistics? In fact, folks that make a lot of money have published multiple papers on the sort of statistics that we look at each week in helping us to make decisions on choosing our roster.

The question of age is one that is most closely examined by statisticians as it one of the easiest to track over the last several decades as many of the more sophisticated metrics have only been tracked over the last few years. I did extensive research into this topic and pulled together data to find out the true impact age has on the results of professional golfers.

Our contention here at Fantasy Golf Insider is that the game is undergoing a bit of a seismic shift in terms of who the best players are in the game and that the game as we know it is getting younger. While the data is still somewhat limited in scope over the last 7-8 years, it does suggest that the youth movement is gaining ground and is something that fantasy players of both season long and weekly leagues should take heed of when selecting a roster.

In collecting the data, we took a look at every tournament winner on the PGA tour from 2007-2014. In order to make sure that we didn’t allow any individual player to distort the statistics, each player was only counted once each year, although many won multiple times for individual years. The point obviously, is to make sure that a player like Tiger Woods does not drive the average age higher with many wins in a year.

The data sets that most statisticians have used over the decades have been fairly consistent in showing the average age for winning tournament players on the PGA is about 35. Most recently, Dr Gizachew Tiruneh, PhD at the University of Central Arkansas performed a study (Age and Winning in the Professional Golf Tours) of players on the PGA, European PGA, Champions Tour and LPGA Tour. He studied 239 tournaments from 2003-2007 and found that the mean age for winning tournaments during that period was 35.14 and the median age was 35 (half the winners were older, half were younger). Obviously, these years were dominated by Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh. The author ran models that excluded each and one that excluded both and the numbers weren’t affected dramatically, with the model excluding Singh reducing the mean and median by about a year.

Dr Scott Berry of Texas A&M took a longer view when he published a paper, “The Effects of Age on the Performance of Professional Golfer” published in Science and Golf in 1999. In his paper, he looked at 489 players who had participated in at least one major tournament since 1935. His findings indicate that most players hit their peak between age 30 and 35 with a dramatic decrease in play typically occurring after age 35. Much of this is not terribly surprising as similar comparisons can be made with the NFL where the dreaded age of 30 is viewed as a cliff for running backs where very few are able to excel beyond that point. With over 60 years of data to look at, plus a more recent look at the data, a casual observer might simply draw the conclusion that at 34-35 golfers will reach their magical peak, thus choosing players in this range for future lineups gives the fantasy manager just the right mix of both youth and maturity.

We have a bit of a contrarian view when looking at these numbers however, and although we can’t show enough data to draw a dramatic conclusion, we do think that conventional views will be challenged enough so that being aware of the current shift taking place in the world of golf can give you one more edge when contemplating a weekly or season long strategy for your roster.

I want to take the reader off the greens of the golf course and onto the greens of the poker table felt. Let’s take a quick look back at the World Series of Poker for reference. Poker and golf compare reasonably well for our purposes. Where as sports like baseball and football are very limited by age with most participants falling between the ages of about 25-33, with just a few scattered in the early 20’s or late 30’s, poker and golf tournaments feature an incredibly wide range of ages with participants in their early 20’s up to late 50’s on the golf course, and even a bit higher for a handful of poker players.

When the WSOP first kicked off in 1970, there were 7 players and 63 year-old Johnny Moss took home the title of champion, voted upon by his peers at the event. He repeated as champion the following year by besting a field of 6 at age 64. Amarillo Slim took the tile in 1972 at age 43 and from there, the average age remained right around 43-44 until 1978 when Bobby Baldwin captured the title at age 28 and Stu Unger had back to back wins in 1980-1981 at 26-27. Throughout the 1980s and early 90s, the average remained roughly in like with the average winner ranging in age from late 30s to mid 40s with only a couple of outliers (Johnny Chan and Phil Hellmuth). Around the end of the decade and into the next, a subtle shift began with players like Huck Seed, Carlos Mortensen and Chris Moneymaker all winning titles in their late 20s. Between 2004-2007, things seemed to revert to the mean with player between 36-40 winning each year. However, from 2008 up to the present, a dramatic shift has taken place among the winners. In 2014, 27 year-old, Martin Jacobson won the title, marking the first time since 2007 that a player older than 24 had won the tournament. He beat a field of 6683 to claim the bracelet.

Poker’s attraction is a little more glamorous, with a lot of individual players that seemingly rise out of nowhere to win a big event. The idea that anyone can win will never be prevalent in the golf world as the higher dollar costs for playing push younger players away from starting the game and the time involved to truly master the game to any reasonable degree make it one that is more difficult to pick up. The attitude around poker and golf was pretty similar for a long time. People genuinely believed for decades that it took years of play along with gaining a certain amount of emotional maturity in order to become successful which would then translate into winning world championships. Over the years, this idea has been erased from the poker world as youth has prevailed overwhelmingly as players are now starting at a younger age (not that anyone would ever gamble under the age of 21…) and putting in more hours than ever before. The point is this: there is no reason to believe that 35 is some special age for golfers. It’s the practice time gained along the way, not the age that matters. If you can play more often through physical rounds or practice facilities, peak form should much more closely mirror what we see in all other sports.

This is what is now happening with golfers who take up the game seriously and focus on it at an earlier age. They are becoming successful on tour at a younger age than seen in previous years. The stories of a Tiger Woods or Sergio Garcia swinging a golf club at age 3 are now becoming much more the norm for the younger players that are coming onto the tour. While we haven’t formed a conclusion as to why this is happening, in the past 7 years since the conclusion of Dr. Tiruneh’s study, the average age of winning tournament players has been in steady decline. In 2007, the mean age of a winning tournament player was 34.89 with a median of 34. By 2010, that had fallen to 33.16 and 33. In 2012, it stood at 32.03 and 32 and finally last year, the numbers had dropped all the way down to 31.46 and 31. Again, this counts each player in any given year only one time so that a player like Rory McIlroy last year cannot by himself skew the statistics in any direction.

With players like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson slowly begin to fade towards the twilight of their respective careers, a new wave of players have emerged that will dominate the game for years to come. Players like Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Hideki Matsuyama, Jason Day, Patrick Reed and Rickie Fowler leading the charge, the game has shifted from one dominated by those with 10 years or more on the tour to players just entering from the qualifying ranks. Whether this shift can be attributed to better youth programs and participation, or programs geared more rigorously towards developing younger players quicker, that remains a question for further study. What we know as golf fans and particularly as fantasy golf enthusiasts is that this current trend is something to focus on with player selection each week. In years past, you may have been very familiar with the field of players taking part in the events on tour. The household names could be relied on to get your through each season. However, with new players arriving and challenging the former stars immediately, you need to do your homework. The best opportunities for value are more than likely going to be found each year from this younger group of players. The phenoms of tomorrow do not always wait until tomorrow to begin to shine.

Data Table 1

Mean Median
2007 34.89 34
2008 33.14 32
2009 34.40 34
2010 33.16 33
2011 32.45 31
2012 32.03 32
2013 32.39 33
2014 31.46 31

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Zach Turcotte is a co-founder of Fantasy Golf Insider.com, fantasy golf expert and has been following and writing about fantasy golf for over five years. He is a member of multiple season long fantasy golf leagues as well as an avid daily fantasy golf player. In the past 12 months he has won over $13,000 playing fantasy golf on Draftkings.com as myzteriouzly. Feel free to contact Zach at zach@fantasygolfinsider.com or visit www.FantasyGolfInsider.Com

Zachary Turcotte
By Zachary Turcotte December 12, 2014 03:00

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