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The Age of Tiger Woods


So I have a friend, a smart guy, who still thinks Tiger Woods will tie Jack Nicklaus’ record. Well, I don’t know if he STILL thinks that after Thursday’s sad turn when Tiger once again withdrew from a tournament and said something about how he couldn’t get his glutes activated. Yeah. But even after last week’s fiasco, where Woods shot an 82 and chipped the golf ball like a weekend hacker, my friend insisted that Woods still had one more great run in him and that, before he was done, he would win four more major championships to give him 18, just like Nicklaus had.

I will concede that there has been some movement in my friends’s position because until recently he’d been insisting that Woods would BREAK Nicklaus’ record and now only thinks that Woods will TIE the record … but the point remains the same. The point is: My friend is delusional.

Then, we’re all just a little bit delusional when it comes to age.

I’ve written at length about how golfers age. It’s not so different from how baseball players age. There’s a temptation to believe golfers play great in their 40s because Phil Mickelson won a British Open at 43, and Nicklaus won a Masters at 46, and Ray Floyd, Lee Trevino, Darren Clark, Hale Irwin had moments of glory in their 40s, and because Fred Couples and Tom Watson and Sam Snead and others have contended even in their 50s. This is anecdotal stuff, though, much like thinking that pitchers must be good in their 40s because Roger Clemens, Phil Niekro, Jamie Moyer and Nolan Ryan had great seasons in their 40s. Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren still get good parts in their sixties. That doesn’t mean it’s like that for most actresses.

The golf numbers are plain — I put them in that story. Here are three statistics:

— The median age for major champion winners since 1960 is 32.

— Only 20 of the the 220 winners since 1960 (9%) were 40 or over.

— Since 2000, only four of 60 (7%) major winners were 40 or over, and three of those four won the Open Championship. No 40-year old has won the Masters or the U.S. Open in the 21st Century.

Tiger doesn’t turn 40 until December — but let’s just say he’s 40. His body’s 40 for sure.

Golfers don’t age as obviously as, say, tennis players do. But the theme is the same. Roger Federer, after losing at the Australian Open, said he had a bad day. Chris Evert responded to that with one of the smartest things I’ve heard about athletes aging. She said that the thing about getting older is that you just have more bad days.

That’s pretty profound, if you think about it. There are times when Federer, Derek Jeter, Peyton Manning, Tiger Woods are as great as they were young. No question. But then there’s tomorrow. And the day after that. And the day after that. And while the bad days used to happen rarely, like a weird 24-hour virus that comes out of nowhere, the viruses pop up more and more often as you get old. Maybe you have one bad day for ever three good ones. Then it’s one bad day for every two good ones. Then you have one bad day for every good one.

Woods career will always been divided in golf fans mind by the personal scandals. Before the scandal he won 14 major championships, one of those on a one leg, and probably played a more perfect golf than anyone including Nicklaus and Hogan and Jones ever played. After the scandal, of course, he won zero major championships, really never came all that close to winning one and went two and a half years without winning any tournaments. He did win three tournaments in 2012, five more in 2013 worked his way back up to No. 1 in the world … but golf greatness is measured in majors. Woods knows this better than anyone.

I don’t think the scandal, though, is the right dividing line for Woods. I don’t believe that it has been the decisive factor in his decline. I think injuries have been a bigger part of things. And I think age is a bigger part than most want to admit. Woods won his last major when he was 32. That’s not really so out of line with other good golfers. Fred Couples won his only major at 32. Johnny Miller won his last at 29. Seve Ballesteros won his last at 31. Tom Watson was 33. Palmer was 34. Curtis Strange was 34. And so on.

Woods has been playing this game since he was a toddler. It’s hard to imagine that anyone has swung the club as hard as often as he did. There was never a good reason to believe his body would hold up. There was never a particularly good reason to believe he would age well, just as there isn’t really a reason to believe Miguel Cabrera will age well or LeBron James. We just want to believe it. We want to believe that their mental toughness will translate in longevity. We want to believe that will can overcome time. We always want to believe.

I have not believed for years that Tiger would break or tie Nicklaus’ record, but I did believe that he would win another major championship or two. He certainly played well enough in the last couple of years to win one. And, sure, he might play well enough again. But right now we are seeing a 39-year-old man whose body cannot sustain the violence of a golf swing hit again and again. We are seeing a 39-year-old man whose swing is so far gone that even a know-nothing like me can look at him on the Minolta swing-whiz-fizz-les-miz-gryzz-showbiz-ol’-diz-pop-quiz-nothing-beats-the-wiz camera and say, “Yuck.” We are seeing a remarkable athlete rage against the dying of the light — and like with all athletes, all people, the light dies anyway.

Dale Murphy, one of my favorite athletes and people, hit 398 home runs in his career. I think he probably wanted 400. That’s a round number. That used to be a Hall of Fame qualifier too — until the 1980s, every player with 400 homers was elected to the Hall. I don’t know how much that number 400 mattered to him, but I do know that in 1992, at age 36, he played 18 games with Philadelphia. He hit .161 with two home runs. He didn’t want it to end like that so in 1993, he went to Colorado for its inaugural season and played for the minimum salary. Like I say, he needed only two home runs. He could not get even one of them. He got in 26 games, came to the plate 49 times, and hit .141 with one extra base hit. It had ended for him so suddenly. At 31, he hit 44 home runs and was an MVP candidate. At 37, he couldn’t lift one fly ball into the mountain air and over the wall. That’s not baseball. That’s life.

And now, it’s Tiger Woods. He was the No. 1 golfer in the world just months ago. Just last week, during his dreadful two days at the Phoenix Open, he managed to get his club-head speed up to almost 125 mph, which is remarkable stuff. Even as he walked to his Porsche in the Torey Pines parking lot, chased by cameras and reporters, the thought was plain: If only he can harness his swing again; if only he can get back to chipping with confidence; if only he can stay healthy, if only … the declining years have a lot of “if onlys.” That’s not Tiger Woods. That’s life.

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37 Responses to The Age of Tiger Woods

  1. Chipper Jones in his last year said that he could still hit. And he still did hit. But he couldn’t stay healthy, even on a 4 game a week schedule they had him on. As the season wore on, he had more bad days, he was usually dinged up and his batting average dropped. Aging impacts your ability to recover, which impacts your performance. I played in men’s basketball league year round until I was 35. In my 20s, I was the teams best defender and I could run up and down the court all day…and the next day. At 35, I could only play half a game, and then I could barely get out of bed the next day…. And the next day. Worse, I was assigned to guard the worst player on the floor. When the worst player on the opposing team beat me to score the game winner, I was really embarrassed. That was my last game. Couldn’t do it any more and couldn’t stay healthy. That’s just not fun.

    • Brian says:

      But Chipper was right, he could still hit until the end, and he wasn’t even a poor fielder into his late 30s. He never played 150 games after age 31 but it was different than the Tiger situation, where Woods just doesn’t seem to have it anymore.

      • It’s semantics though. Chipper could hit WHEN he was healthy. And increasingly, he was not healthy. His last season, he was hittng near .300 until towards the end of the season when he was dinged up and ended up in the low .260s. So, it wasn’t entirely true that he could still hit at the end. He just wasn’t healthy enough, often enough, to hit consistently anymore. I think if Woods was ever to get completely healthy, then he’d win tournaments. I just don’t think he’ll ever be completely healthy. Age is a factor in all of this, of course. It’s not like he’s suddenly going to wake up one day and have the body of a 28 year old. No, he’s going to wake up soon enough and have the body of a 40 year old.

      • doncoffin64 says:

        But Chipper could take a day, two days off. You can’t do that in a golf tournament…it’s all four or nothing matters.

        • And if Chipper was, say, the fifth best third baseman in the world (let alone the fifth best hitter in the world) for four days, that could make a real contribution to the Braves. But if Tiger is the fifth best golfer in the world for four days, that doesn’t win him a major.

  2. Joe O. says:

    I think the way that he trained, and ultimately transformed his body into a more muscular athletic physique, while initially seen as an attribute by many that might serve to extend his career, may factor into his seemingly premature demise.

    • Crout says:

      Is that a variation on the old baseball adage that lifting weights was “bad” because it tightened you up and you couldn’t play ball if you were muscle bound?

    • Tiger is the most scrutinized golfer ever. It’s not a perfect comparison because Jack did win a couple of majors at age 40 (the prior year he had no wins on the tour). So, his runway was a little longer. But, after 40, while he was still around, and still contended, he didn’t win very often. He certainly won more than anyone else that age, so he’s even the exception to the rule there. His win at age 46 was a huge surprise and really he wasn’t in contention until the back 9, when he went crazy and shot a 31. Anyway, if Tiger can get healthy, I believe he’ll win again. Will he get healthy? Probably not.

  3. Blackmar says:

    Tiger was the best putter the world has ever seen. He is pga tour replacement level right now.

  4. College Wolf says:

    Hey Joe,

    I LOVE your stuff and read everything. Just a quick question… on the other sites you write for, do you get paid per submission, or do you get paid for pageviews too? Because if you also get paid a cut of pageviews, I’ll re-click your old links to off-blog stuff so that the ads load, even though I’ve already read everything before in the past.

    Just curious, thanks and keep up the awesome writing!

  5. hewetson says:

    One of my favorite baseball players and now (thanks to Joe) I know Dale Murphy was a great man.

  6. John Leavy says:

    SInce Joe alluded to Chris Evert’s wise observation, I thought I’d note what Chris said at her retirement: “I know I’m still capable of winning a major. But now I’m equally capable of losing in the first round to an unranked player. And that just isn’t good enough for me.” Like Jack Nicklaus, Chris Evert only wanted to play while she was still a championship contender.

    Not everybody feels that way. Her old boyfriend Jimmy Connors kept playing long after he was a real threat to win any majors, just because he loved the game of tennis, the crowds, and the lifestyle of a touring pro.

    We may see soon if Tiger loves golf or if he only loves winning.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      That’s a good point. Greg Maddux kept pitching long after he was anything more than an adequate pitcher because he liked to pitch. Federer keeps playing because he loves tennis even though it’s unlikely he will ever win another Slam. Fans often think athletes should retire when they can no longer play at their previous level. Some, like Chris Evert, do that but others still play because retiring means never playing again and forever is a long time.

      It must be difficult to have been one of the best in the world at what you do and to realize you no longer are. (Although, it must be said that even being able to play a sport at the highest level still makes you one of the best in the world even if you are not as good as you once were.) In Tiger’s case, I suspect he will keep playing, not necessarily because he loves golf, but because he will never be able to admit he can’t win anymore. With him, I think Nicklaus’s record is the white whale.

      • Maddux liked ALL of it. He liked getting up and going to the ballpark. He liked shagging balls and hanging with the team. He liked playing golf with his teammates. The only reason he stopped was that he really wasn’t good enough anymore for anyone to want him. He’s a guy who lived, breathed and ate baseball. Other than being with his family and playing golf, he really didn’t know anything else. I expect that once the kids are out of the house…. I think his son is a senior in HS…. you may find him in a pitching coach role somewhere. If he’s available, there will be a lot of interest.

    • Mark A says:

      I think Tiger (regardless of his love of golf) will be chasing for some time yet.

      At the moment he is still believing (in denial?) that he can get his overall dominance back.

      Even if he gives up on that, he still may believe he can get back to major contention. And he can play the masters forever and get untold exemptions to other events.

      So it is way easier for a golfer who “can win or can lose disastrously” to keep chasing because they don’t have to stay seeded. Also, golf is much less head to head. You don’t lose, you just miss the cut.

      • Look at some of Phil’s performances. Phil would play lousy for months. Then get it all together, start playing well, and boom! He would win a major. He might win another event, or two, and then he’d take time off and start playing lousy again. Really I have no doubt that Tiger can get his game together again and win. I just don’t know if he can stay healthy enough to do the work.

  7. John Leavy says:

    P.S. We wouldn’t be having this conversation in any other sport. If Tiger Woods were a basketball or football player, everyone would see and say that he’s past his peak.

    But many people don’t think of golf as a sport. They think of it as a game for 75 year old men in tacky pants. We all KNOW a 39 year old wide receiver isn’t young, but somehow we imagine golf is different.

  8. anon says:

    Correction: Darren Clarke, not Clark.

  9. Craig From Az says:

    I wonder if Tiger’s constant fiddling with his swing is going to be a problem for him as he ages. I respect him for tearing down and rebuilding his golf swing when he was already the best in the world, because he thought he could be better (and he was right). However, grooving a new golf swing takes hours and hours and hours of practice. I don’t think Tiger’s body will let him do that anymore. Maybe he better leave well enough alone, and when (if) he gets healthy, he needs to save the swings for the course.

    • I think you’re right. When you age, you don’t recover. An 18 year old can play a basketball tournament, play three games, then get up and play a 9:00 game the next day and be fine. At 35, you play one game and need two days of rest. The San Antonio Spurs, and others, have become known for resting their players so that they usually get two games of rest between games & never play back to back games. That’s unnecessary with a 23 year old player. Similarly, Tiger probably has a practice regimine where he essentially trained/practiced 8-10 hours a day. You can’t do that at his current age. I’d bet he’d have to cut that down by 50%, or more. So, he either can’t get the reps to rebuild his swing…. or, he can’t stay healthy. Pick your poison. So far, it seems to be the latter.

  10. […] on the course, something which has become very difficult for him to do over the past 18 months. Joe Posnanski wrote last night about Tiger and aging, and while I don’t necessarily agree with everything in that piece, he makes valid points […]

  11. DjangoZ says:

    It’s nice to see someone like Tiger decline and fail so miserably now.

    I like rooting for good people to succeed and bad people to fail.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      It’s hard to say that a guy with 14 major titles has failed. Yes, he is struggling now but in the overall arc of his career he has succeeded amazingly well. Whether one should enjoy someone else’s struggles is a matter of personal preference but I think it’s stretching it to say he is failing. At worst, after he misses the cut, he goes back to his multi-million dollar mansion with his attractive girlfriend. If that’s failing, give me some.

      And, let’s be honest, most of the time, we don’t know whether athletes are good people or not. Tiger’s troubles were out in public, but who knows if someone we think is a good person actually is.

    • David says:

      I guess it depends on how you define good and who the judge is.

  12. gray whale says:

    Joe, I think it’s about time you wrote about Kelly Slater. Your perspective would be unique and exciting to read. He’d be the other side of the “ageing athlete” coin, dominating a sport that has become just as progressive and competitive as any in the mainstream.

  13. jalnichols says:

    Joe – I know you like numbers. I’ve written a number of posts on aging in golf – magnitude, what parts of the game are affected, when it starts to kick in, etc. Short story, aging is almost all tee shot/approach shot performance. Puttng is hardly affected, while the short game improves slightly with age. It starts around 35-38. Aging turns a #1 in the world quality golfer at 35 into a Tour average golfer by 50.

    Feel free to check out the posts (

  14. Kevin says:

    I don’t think the point of the story is to say that Tiger failed. Tiger has made it known that his ultimate goal was Jack’s record. Joe isn’t saying Tiger failed, he’s just saying the odds of Tiger achieving that goal are becoming slimmer each year.

    I wonder if Tiger’s physical issues (especially his back) are a result of his trying to hit the ball like he did at 25 when he is 39. We are all guilty of that as we get older. In my mind, I think I can run or jump or hit a baseball like I did 20 years ago and yet I can’t quite get my body to respond (or recover) in kind.

    Tiger’s transfomation of the game has changed golf technology, physical fitness and the courses themselves. Tiger is competing against players who train just as hard and hit just as hard as he did 15 years ago, yet he is 39. Tiger is playing on courses that have been altered to make it difficult for the 25 year old him to play, yet he is 39. Tiger is playing against many 25 year old versions of himself, but unfortunately, he is playing as the 39 year old version of himself.

    Time is tough.

  15. doncoffin64 says:

    I remember a stretch, maybe of a couple of years, when Fred Couples would play well on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, be in contention…then, well, 4 championship-quality rounds in 4 days is hard enough when you’re 30…when you’re 45…

  16. Phaedrus says:

    Joe, I’d be interested to hear if you asked Watson about Tiger’s chipping/pitching. I got the yips on pitch shots about 15 years ago and it seems clear to me that Tiger has them…playing a bump n run from 10 yds off the green was a clear indication (at least to me).

    Since Tom had the putting yips, I’d be curious to hear his take. Some of Tiger’s pitches from the Isleworth tournament looked like Charles Barkley swings.

  17. Mike says:

    The numbers make me think Tiger is more likely to break the record. If 9% of majors are won by over 40s, that’s .36 a year and in 11 years you would expect 4 majors to be won by 40 and over players. If it’s 7 percent that is still just 14 years. Only Phil Mickelson and maybe Jim Furyk look like a threat to win a major in their 40s alongside Tiger. Again, we should expect 3-4 majors to be won in the next decade by 40 year olds.

    • Ed says:

      That’s only if you assume someone is just as likely to win a major at age 49 as they are at age 40. Only two of those 20 people were over 45, so the numbers wouldn’t look the same if you are trying to project Tiger’s chances of winning 4 from ages 40-49.

      Additionally, there are guys in their mid-late 30s now who will be in their 40s at the same time as Tiger. Bubba Watson is 36. Adam Scott and Justin Rose are 34. Zach Johnson is 38. I’d take the odds on a 40 year old Adam Scott or Justin Rose winning a major over a 45 year old Tiger Woods.

  18. Phaedrus says:

    Cutting it off at 1960 also leaves Hogan out of the picture. He won 3 majors in 1953 when he was 40 years old. Thanks to the car accident, he probably had more wear n tear on his body than Woods does. He also peaked much later than Woods though.

  19. Mike says:

    Joe states, “There was never a particularly good reason to believe he would age well.” Not true, there was every reason to believe he would because it is those athletes possessing the most talent that seem to defy the aging process. For example, Nicklaus, Watson and Hogan in golf or Ted Williams and Stan Musial in baseball.

    • Bookbook says:

      Some of that is hindsight bias. If you look at the top WAR lists for their twenties, you’ll see the Ken Griffeys, Nomars, Bo Jacksons, et al. You don’t know who those greatest athletes who defied the aging process are until they’ve done it.

    • Anon says:

      No offense, but Tom Watson most certainly did not age well. He basically stopped winning at 34 before tacking on a couple more in his late 40’s

  20. Mike Chase says:

    Many athletes associated with Nike over the years who achieved incredible things in sports and had significant changes in their physique experienced problems with injuries and performance down the road. It sure makes you wonder if that is what we are seeing. Tiger went from Urkel to Adonis. Maybe that was just hard work. Probably just what happened to Ben Johnson,Marian Jones,Barry Bonds,Lance Armstrong,etc.

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