Photo: David Cannon/Getty Images
As recently as 2009, it was a foregone conclusion that Tiger Woods would catch Jack Nicklaus and win at least 19 majors.But then came the scandal and the injuries, and all of a sudden he’s on the wrong side of 35 and still needs five majors to become the undisputed greatest of all time.
So at age 36, he’s too old to pass Jack, right?
No. There are lots of reasons to think Tiger can’t catch him — his knees are bad, we have no idea what the scandal did to him psychologically, and he has only won one PGA tournament since 2009. But age is pretty low on that list.
History disagrees with us.
Older players simply don’t win all that many majors. Take a look at this age break down of major champions (via GolfMajorChampions.com):
Photo: Tony Manfred
Just 22% of majors have been won by players who were Tiger’s age or older. And once you get to age 40, your chances of winning a major shrink dramatically.
So according to history: Tiger needs to win five of the 16 majors he has left before age 40, or he faces steep odds. Even worse, the pool of under-25 phenoms (McIlroy, Bradley, Day, etc.) will be entering prime major-winning age right when Tiger hits the point when golfers almost never win majors.
But there’s hope for Tiger!
Golf (and sports in general), has changed drastically in the last 10 or even five years. Athletes are simply playing better at older ages than they ever had before. Steve Nash is one of the best point guards in the NBA at age 38. Kobe Bryant leads in minutes after 16 years in the league. Jamie Moyer just made a major league roster at age 49.
You can attribute this trend to whatever you want (sports science, training, diet, exploding salaries creating an incentive to be in better shape, etc.), but one thing is clear: the role of age in sports is changing.
Take a look at the age break down of the top 25 favourites to win the Masters this week (according to the sportsbook Bovada.lv):
Photo: Tony Manfred
There are nearly as many contenders over the age of 38 (7), as there are under the age of 30 (8).
While the curve of this graph peaks between 30 and 33 just like the graph of major champions, there are more contending players toward the older end of the spectrum than you’d expect historically.
In addition, 35% of the last 20 majors (7 our of 20) have been won by players Tiger’s age or older, compared to 22% historically.
In short: Tiger has more time than the historical data suggests because golfers are playing at a high level for longer now. 36 is the new 32.
Another thing Tiger has going for him is his insane training regimen. You can’t predict when Tiger will decline because the sport has simply never seen an athlete like him. We know what happens to traditional golfers at age 40. But we have no idea what happens to a fit, super-focused athlete like Tiger Woods at age 40.
So no, Tiger is not too old to catch Jack.
That’s not to say he will catch Jack — he still has bum knee and a (possibly) shaky psyche. But you can’t rule him out on age alone.
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