By In Golf

The age of Tiger

So, if you’re a Peanuts fan, you might remember that for a time Peppermint Patty believed that she was an angel put on  earth to pass along one specific message. The message? “If a foul ball is hit behind third base, it’s the shortstop’s ball.”

I’ve often wondered, as many have I suppose: What is my message to the world?

And I think it’s this: Athletes ALWAYS age faster than you think they do.

OK, it’s not exactly that kinetic energy equals mass times the speed of light squared or  that brevity is the soul of wit or that Soylent Green is people but it’s the best I’ve got. It just seems like people keep refusing to accept that athletes in all sports — every single one — fade so much more quickly than you would expect them to. This is particularly tough to accept in baseball and golf, two sports where there is little violence* and numerous examples of older players beating the odds.

*Aside from an occasional John Daly club throw into the ocean.

In baseball, the unwillingness to understand how quickly players decline has cost teams billions of dollars. GM’s will keep signing 30-somethings with the hope and expectation that they will perform more or less like they did in their younger days. This is baseball’s definition of insanity.

Three years ago, I asked this question: Which duo of baseball players would you rather have for the next five years, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton or Eric Hosmer and Salvador Perez? I emphasized the point by adding that money is no object: I was simply asking which would be the better duo for five years, Pujols and Hamilton or Hosmer and Perez.

The question seemed so stupid at the time that, well, you can read some of the comments if you want. At the time, there was so much buzz about the Angels acquiring the two former MVPs. Pujols had been the best player in baseball for a decade. Hamilton was thought by many to be pretty close to that level when healthy. Few knew who Hosmer and Perez even were.

Well, we’re only three years into the deal — the turn happened even faster than I thought it would:

Since 2012:

Pujols and Hamilton: 11 WAR, 1 All-Star appearance.

Perez and Hosmer: 17.7 WAR, 3 All-Star appearances, 5 Gold Gloves, 1 World Series appearance.

Hamilton has already been dumped. Pujols is having something of a renaissance season because he has 30 home runs, but it’s a facade: He’s now a defensive liability (after being a great defender), and his on-base percentage is down to .312 — he has basically become a one-dimensional home run hitter. Meanwhile Perez is probably the best catcher in the American League and Hosmer is coming into his own at age 25. If you asked the question now, the answer would be even more obvious than it was in 2012 — and it would be the opposite answer of 2012. Bet on youth. Always bet on youth.

This premise of aging fast is even more controversial in golf. I’ve written about this so many times that, yes, you’re undoubtedly sick of it. But the message just isn’t getting out there. Again and again, there are stories and analyses and comments asking WHAT’S WRONG with Tiger Woods? And people just refuse to accept that there’s nothing wrong with Tiger Woods. He’s 40 years old or will be in a few months. And this is what happens.

Take a look at these two charts. First will be the golfers who have won the most majors through age 35. The second will be the golfers who have won the most majors 36 and older.

Most Majors through age 35

1. Tiger Woods, 14.

(tie) Jack Nicklaus, 14.

3. Walter Hagen, 10

4. Tom Watson, 8

5. Arnold Palmer, Gene Sarazen, Bobby Jones, 7.

Bobby Jones is obviously a tricky one because he actually won six U.S. and British amateur championships that were considered major in his day. But you get the point.

Most majors 36 and older

1. Ben Hogan, 8

2. Sam Snead, 5

3. Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Phil Mickelson, 4.

You will notice only one player makes the Top 5 of both lists — Jack Nicklaus. It is what sets him apart. But it goes beyond that. Now, let’s give you the first list again, but in parentheses I’ll show you how many majors those golfers won after age 35.

1. Tiger Woods, 14 (0)

(tie) Jack Nicklaus, 14 (4)

3. Walter Hagen, 10 (1)

4. Tom Watson, 8 (0)

5. Arnold Palmer, 7 (0)

(tie) Gene Sarazen, 7 (0)

(tie) Bobby Jones, 7 (0)

Other than Nicklaus, who reinvented himself after 35, these top golfers won a combined ONE major championship after they turned 35. Yes, they had different circumstances (Jones retired, for instance). But Byron Nelson never won one after 35. Seve Ballesteros never won won after 35. Lee Trevino and Nick Faldo won one each after 35. Of the greatest golfers, the only two who were great on both sides of the 35-year line are Nicklaus and Gary Player. And Player is famous for being, essentially, unbreakable.

Tiger Woods’ real issue, when it comes to catching Nicklaus on the all-time majors list, isn’t what he’s doing now. He lost the race when he didn’t win a major championship in 2009, when he was 33, then after the scandal  didn’t win majors at ages 34 and 35. That was when he physically could still win. He finished top six six times then. He did have a real shot at 36 to win the 2012 Open Championship at Royal Lytham — he entered the final day a shot ahead of eventual winner Ernie Els. But Els, who is six years older than Woods, shot 68 on the final day. Tiger shot 73, and that was that.

Though Woods has talked about how he has given himself many chances to win majors since then, he really has not. He made an illegal drop at the 2013 Masters and finished fourth (many thought he should have disqualified himself) and he entered the final day of the Open Championship that year just two shots back, but he never sparked on Sunday. Since then, he has missed more major championship cuts (4) than he has made (3).

And sure, you can talk about his many swing changes. You can talk about how he won five regular tournaments in 2013 and made it back to No. 1 in the world. You can talk about how there are moments, sometimes nine-hole stretches, occasionally even entire days when he looks like the old Tiger Woods.  But these are  the illusions that keep us thinking that the years are standing still. And they are just that: Illusions.

The swing changes are the sign of a man whose body is breaking down — he can’t swing the club like he once did, and he keeps looking for remedies. Getting back to No. 1 in the world in 2013 was nice, but it was a paper title at best — you can’t truly be the best golfer in the world if you are not winning majors. Heck, Luke Donald and Lee Westwood have also been No. 1 in the world. And the short stretches where he looks like the young Tiger? Sure, they’ll keep happening. You know what? There are times still when Tom Watson looks like the young Tom Watson, and he’s turning 66 next month. It doesn’t last.

People keep wanting to make this about some mystical thing in the desperate belief that Tiger Woods will someday turn on a switch and become great again. Well, people have been looking for that switch since a guy named Juan Ponce de Leon. Tiger Woods can keep practicing, keep adjusting, keep searching for his feels, keep trying to find the bottom of his swing, keep working on his alignment and all that but in the end, he’s 40 now. This is who Tiger Woods is now.  People want to talk about how he has 10 more years of being competitive; they’re just kidding themselves. Maybe with practice and a new focus and a shift in his thinking he might at some point become competitive again, and if he can become competitive again there’s a chance he can have a magical week or two. But even if that does happen — and the odds are against it happening — he will have to find a way to compete as an older golfer not as the Tiger Woods we once knew. This is not a new story. It’s the oldest story going.

It was sad watching Tiger Woods flounder at the Open Championship last month, and it was sad watching him stagger and stumble at the U.S. Open the month before that, but something felt different about his third straight major championship missed cut this week at the PGA Championship. This time, it felt a bit more ceremonial somehow. Yes, he still cursed up a storm after bad shots, and he still looked frustrated, and his self-evaluations still seemed somewhat separated from reality. But he was introduced as the 1999, 2000, 2006 and 2007 PGA Champion. Fans gave him a few standing ovations. There was a “let’s appreciate what Tiger Woods has meant to us” vibe.

And it reminds me of when I went to the eye doctor a few weeks ago. The doctor said, “Congratulations. You have hit bottom.”

I said, “What do you mean?”

He said: “Your eyes have now lost 100% of their ability to focus. That’s it. You have zero percent capacity for focus now. This is what happens when you get to be our age.”

I looked at him (or tried to — I can’t focus) and asked why he offered congratulations.

“Well,” he said, “it can’t get any worse.”

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52 Responses to The age of Tiger

  1. Matt Minnis says:

    Joe, can you repost a Mike Sweeny collumn today for him getting inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame. The one you did for the KC star was my favorite all-time.

  2. Innocent Bystander says:

    My message to the world:
    “Not every thing is something.”
    In other words, sometimes random things just happen. Sometimes they’re not random, but you don’t need to let them affect your life. And sometimes people who can affect your life (family, friends, politicians) do things that your initial instinct is to be upset but, well…not every thing is something.

  3. Jim Blaney says:

    Does your note about John Daly throwing his club into the “ocean” mean that Whistling Straights has won by allowing us to see the course as a traditional seaside links course and not a lakeside, for-TV creation?

  4. Phaedrus says:

    Of course, there’s another way to look at it…

    Excluding Tiger, the average number of major wins after age 35 for players that won at least 14 before age 35 is 4. Ergo, Tiger should win 4 more and tie Nicklaus.

  5. Jim Haas says:

    My purpose is to convince Mr. Posnanski to never start another story with the word “so.”

    • PhilM says:

      Hey, If it was good enough for the Beowulf poet. . . .

    • Simon says:

      Please don’t. That’s one of my favourite things about Mr. Posnanski’s stories.

    • bpdelia says:

      Well the greatest writers in history (Joe is not amongst them but he’s good) have tavern liberties with the language.

      Do you comment about Finnegans Wake and it’s unconscionable use of the language?

      Language is an evolving thing. It’s a technology not a Law.

      The only purpose of language is to be understood. To express.

      Many rules help in this regard, some do not. Some actually hinder our ability to communicate.

      The modern form of fiction has basically crept into all writing. The Hemingway, Carver, Thom Jones type of writing.

      It’s main feature is that it eschews formal rules and instead attempts to recreate they way we speak on the page.

      I’m a fiction writer myself and am partial to this style. You may not like it and that’s fine.

      But stylistically there is nothing wrong with that sentence.

      The old rule of not starting sentences with “but or and or because” has also been forgotten.

      Rules often stifle creativity. As long as one is understood the use of language was correct.

      Because all that matters is being understood.

  6. Dayton Moore says:

    So should the Royals extend Alex Gordon (he will be 32 next year)

  7. I’ve been commenting on, and many if not almost all either believe Tiger is done… but not because of age, but because “it’s mental”… or believe he has another 10 years to win.

    I consistently say, that he might have a small 3 year window where he could get hot and have a big week…. and that if he’s in good form (if that ever happens again) he’s always dangerous at The Master (he finished 17th this year in the midst of all the horror of this year).

    If I had to bet, I’d give him 50/50 to win a Master once more and that’s it. I think he might have a couple of tour wins in him as well.

    But, the bottom line is that he IS OLD and may not regain his form ever again. If he does, the potential is pretty limited for much good to happen.

    • John Leavy says:

      This is the most logical take so far. Nobody should be saying, “Tiger stinks and he needs to pack it in, now!” But nobody should be saying, “Tiger will be back stronger than ever any day now, you’ll see.”

      Tiger is a 40 year old man with bad knees. In any other sport, everyone would acknowledge that his best days are behind him. But most people think of golf as a game for geriatrics (kinda like shuffleboard), not as a true athletic endeavor, so it’s hard for them to understand that a 40 year old golfer with bad knees is NOT young!

      Tiger is far younger than I am, so it feels strange to call him “old,” but in athletic terms, he is. I believe he is still capable of great days and even occasional great weekends. He CAN still win tournaments, maybe even a major. But there are going to be more and more bad days, more and more missed cuts, more and more seeing Tiger miss putts he’d have sunk easily a few years ago.

      Anyone who’s waiting for the Tiger of 1999 to re-emerge is going to be waiting a long time.

      • I think most everyone is coming to the conclusion that Tiger will never return to dominating form, except for a few notable holdouts. But the pendulum has swung the other way where it is impossible for him to ever even be competitive. That needs to fully play out…. and the time is ticking on him, for sure. I just cannot completely bet against him being able to get back to the point where he wins a time, or two.

        I’ll tell you though, this weekend is giving me pause. If guys are obliterating tough courses and winning majors at 20 under….. and btw…. with a multiple major winner only two strokes behind & the field right behind that…. well, the new era seems to have a number of golfers playing to the level Tiger did when he dominated. Tiger’s biggest problem now is that there’s a half dozen guys playing at Tiger’s previous level., and they’ll all be there every single major for the rest of Tiger’s career. That’s going to make it really, really tough to win a major.

  8. And so, this brings me to the latest Braves trade with the Dodgers. The Braves traded away Alex Wood, Jim Johnson, Jose Peraza and Luis Avilan for Hector Olivera, Zach Bird, Paco Rodriguez and a draft pick. That’s 30 year old Hector Olivera.

    Evening this all out, Jim Johnson is old, Luis Avilan has limited talent, Zach Bird seems OK and I don’t even know who Paco Rodrigues is. Jose Peraza’s been a top prospect, but one who is mostly a singles hitter who doesn’t walk and plays 2nd or 3rd, which the Braves have covered already.

    So, this essentially turns into an Alex Wood and Jose Peraza (sort of) for Hector Olivera trade. Maybe the draft pick will mean something & maybe Bird will find his way into the bullpen or back end of the rotations some day…. but…. anyway.

    So, you have 24 year old Alex Wood, a starting pitcher in essentially his second full season. He’s a bit up and down this year, as tends to happen with young pitchers. But, to me, he looks like a nice middle of the rotation pitcher with plenty of upside, you know, because he’s 24. And you have 30 year old Cuban Hector Olivera. Olivera got a big contract to come over for Cuba & has alternated between tearing up the Minor Leagues and being on the DL.

    The Braves seem to be betting that Olivera will be a beast and play 3B for the Braves for the next 5 years…. which are all under contract. So, I really worry about this trade, mainly because I read this column & I see 30 YEAR OLD HECTOR OLIVERA like a big red flashing light beacon. He may well be injured all the time, well, because he’s 30. Yeah, he may tear it up for a couple of years, but when you’re in rebuild mode…. uhhhh…. isn’t it obvious? Bet on youth.

    To me this has all the markings of a really bad trade for the Braves, who like many baseball teams, don’t seem to realize that magically bad things happen to most ballplayers after they hit 30. But like with golf, there are enough exceptions that teams will keep signing these guys. But I’m not seeing Olivera as the next Hank Aaron or Randy Johnson or Barry Bonds. I’m seeing him as a guy named Hector Olivera who’s been tearing up the minor leagues and getting hurt a lot.

    You’d think a GM like John Hart wouldn’t fall for something like this…. especially when he’s in a rebuilding project. Doh.

    • *Peraza plays 2nd and SS, where they have young talent in Jace Peterson and Andrelton Simmons.

    • Paco Rodriguez is a lefty reliever who was very good for about half a season, but Mattingly just wore him out by pitching him all the time (Mattingly is terrible at handling a bullpen) and now his arm is dead. I wouldn’t expect him to contribute to the Braves at all.

    • Anon says:

      First off, I agree with you that it was a better deal for the Dodgers than the Braves but there is also some concern that Wood will develop arm problems due to his delivery. I believe they;re overblown but it is something that is out there,

  9. Noah says:

    What if Tiger finds the secret of golf?

  10. John Elliott says:

    Phil Mickelson was 35 not 36 when he won the 2005 PGA and the 2006 Masters – meaning he won two majors beyond age 36 – the 2010 Masters and 2013 Open Championship.

  11. NevadaMark says:

    People still read about Tiger Woods?

  12. BobDD says:

    Tiger’s just weakened from Charlie Sheen having his blood.

  13. Gesge says:

    I am not a Tiger Woods fan, but I kind of want to see him win a major again so Joe Posnanski can eat all the many, MANY columns he’s written about this through the years.

    • KHAZAD says:

      I don’t think Joe ever claimed that Tiger would never win a major again. (Though it certainly looks as though that will be the end result) I think he started writing these as an argument against those that handed the majors title to Woods (and it was an opinion that was widely held) prematurely, without taking his age into account. It would take Tiger winning 5 (or at least 4 to tie Nicklaus) for Joe to have to eat his words. That is not going to happen.

  14. dezbiz57 says:

    While I agree that Tiger’s best shot to pass Nicklaus has come and gone, it is still possible Woods will win more majors, and there’s an outside chance he will win four or more.
    The oldest player to win a major was Julius Boros at 48,so Woods has some time.
    Ben Hogan had one of the best seasons in golf history at the age of 40, winning three majors. He passed on the fourth, the PGA, because it was a match-play. It wasn’t anything against match play. Hogan’s legs couldn’t hold up through that many rounds of golf. The reason? Hogan was nearly killed in a car accident at age 36. He won six of his major titles after the accident.
    Hogan of course is an outlier.
    But then again so is Tiger.
    All the guys at the top of the major-wins list are.
    Numbers tells us what is probable, not what is possible and certainly not what actually will happen, particularly with a specific athlete.
    We know baseball players generally get worse after age 30 and quite a bit worse after 35. There’s no arguing that.
    But the rate of decline isn’t the same in every case.
    An example: After his age 35 season, player X has averaged 35 homers a season and has 554 career homers. The record at the time is 714. We know that even star players in their late 30s tend to hit fewer homers, often a lot fewer, and a career is usually over by age 40. Player X would have to average at least 32 homers a season, almost the same as his career average, for five seasons to break the record. Therefore, player X has almost no chance at the record.
    Expect that over the next five seasons, player Hank Aaron averaged 36 and broke the record.
    You might have noticed that when Joe gave his example with baseball players in 2012 — Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton vs Eric Hosmer and Salvador Perez — he picked a pairs players and over five seasons.
    Joe is no fool. Because if you just picked one old guy and one youngster and say over the 2013 and 2014 seasons, well Pujols beats Hosmer on WAR. That’s too small a sample for the premise to be assured of working.
    Incidentally, this year is Pujols’ age 35 season. He has 550 homers.
    So he could finish the season with 554.
    I don’t think he will hit more than 160 over the next five seasons.
    It’s quite improbable.
    But we know from history it is possible.

    • invitro says:

      The problem is that ANYTHING is possible. Saying something is possible has no meaning. It’s just not interesting.

      But saying something is probable, with a particular probability attached, now that’s something. Even if it’s not accurate, at least you can argue about it. If you say “it’s possible that Albert Pujols will hit 715 HR”, the appropriate response is to shrug.

    • NevadaMark says:

      I thought Hogan missed the PGA because of a scheduling conflict.

    • I think when you start using outliers like Boros’ major win at 48 as a basis for Tiger winning four more majors, you’re really straining logic and statistics beyond any useful standards. Guess how many wins by over 40 players their have been in the last 100 years. That would be 24. Of those, only three (Nicklaus, Boros & Hogan) have won more than 2 past 40 yrs old. Statistically speaking, odds are very long for Tiger to win more than one major.

  15. invitro says:

    The comments on the sportsonearth article (on Pujols/Hamilton/Hosmer/SPerez) are priceless. Pretty much all of the respondents thought Joe was crazy.

    • KHAZAD says:

      The funny part is that most picked Pujols and Hamilton with money not being a factor, but some thought that even with the money that the Angels had the better pair. Pro rating the 2015 salaries for when Joe wrote this piece, the Angels had spent $8.56 million per WAR, and the Royals had spent $0.66 million per WAR. The Royals also have won 11 more actual games (22 if you count post season wins) than the Angels since the original article.

  16. invitro says:

    Some people think Kobe Bryant is still the best player in the NBA. Most people think he’s still a great player. Pretty much everyone thinks he’s still above replacement level.

    Of course, Kobe was not all that good in his prime… he’s the second-most overrated player in NBA history, after Allen Iverson.

    • Brent says:

      Charles Barkley this week on Kobe playing next year:

      “I hope he retires, because I don’t want to see — I probably played two years too long. I hate to see Patrick Ewing, great as he was, struggle — I don’t like seeing great players just out there, you know?” Barkley said. “Michael Jordan playing for the Wizards, that didn’t do anything for me. Kobe’s obviously not going to walk away from $30 million. This should be like a farewell tour, play 20, 25 minutes a night. The Lakers aren’t going to make the playoffs. Could he play some more? Yeah, of course. His best days are behind him. I hear these fools on TV, talking about, ‘Kobe’s going to get healthy.’ Old people don’t get healthy; they die. Old people don’t get healthy. Father Time is undefeated. … You can get in great shape in the summer, because you’re playing against air. Air doesn’t hit back.”

  17. Anon says:

    Three points:
    – Nelson also retired at age 34 after his monster 1945 season. He only played a few select tournaments after that including the Masters but he was really just a ceremonial golfer after that
    – Your eyes did NOT lose the ability to focus – almost certainly your optometrist was talking about presbyopia and your eyes’ ability to focus CLOSE or NEAR which goes away as you age.
    – Woods will never be great again for all the reasons given but also that he has tweaked his swing so badly now that he can never be consistent with that exaggerated dip in his swing. It’s always been there but whatever he has been working on the last few years has just made the dip in his swing worse. THrow in the chipping yips that are at bay now but are sure to reappear eventually and he’s done as an elite golfer. Fact is he is the 2nd worst golfer on Tour right now ahead of only poor MIke Weir (who has also dropped off a cliff a few years ago).

  18. Everything Joe mentioned in this article is true, especially regarding Tiger. Tiger cost himself some prime seasons by engaging in training activities(Navy Seal) which are counterproductive to professional golf.

    The other main reason all golfers ability decline with age is ability to make putts under pressure. Nerve endings fray w age and no amount of exercise or competition will slow it down.

  19. Peter says:

    This was a great article with a great use of facts by the author. He seems to be neither a Tiger hater (Feinstein, Chamblee) nor a Tiger apologist (Tillman, Begay). Although I think Tiger may still catch lightning in a bottle (i.e. Jack in ’86) his days as a dominant force in golf are sadly done. I just hope that the next generation (Rory, Rickie, Jordan, and Day; all of whom would be great role models for my two kids) provides the same level of excitement and fan engagement.

  20. Dennis says:

    I’d be curious to know how many cuts Nicklaus missed in majors after age 35 until he won his last? My memory is that he was competitive, even when he wasn’t winning. It is such a long road back from missing cuts to actually beating the young guns today in majors (who are primed, stronger, have no fear of Tiger Woods, and expect to win themselves), I won’t be surprised if Tiger missing cuts at majors becomes more the rule than the exception. As someone who used to regard Tiger in a major as must-see TV, it’s sad to watch him flounder. But to paraphrase a Neil Diamond song about broken hearts, “Aging athletes losing skills ain’t news – except when it happens to you.”

    • NevadaMark says:

      Jack was born in January of 1940 so he would have been 35 before the start of the 1975 major season. In the next 13 years (through 1987), he played in 52 majors and missed 3 cuts. Come to think about it, that may be the most amazing golf statistic I’ve ever read.

      • Brett Alan says:

        Wow. Yes, that’s absolutely amazing. Note that 52 is all the majors there were (13 x 4 = 52, as any card player could tell you). So he made the cut at all but three of the majors played when he was 35 to 48 years old. Stunning.

        As long as I’m replying, I guess I’ll say that I agree with a lot of people here. Because Tiger IS a very smart guy and a hard worker, my guess is we’ll have at least one more weekend, maybe more than one, where the pieces fall back into place, and he’s legitimately competitive at a major again. If the stars align just right–if he plays really, really well, and the other top competitors stumble just a bit–he could even win one more. Very hard to imagine him getting two more, let alone more than that.

  21. Why are people still hopeful? I guess it is because of Phil Mickelson. Phil’s won all his major titles after the age of 34, so people would ask why couldn’t Tiger do it as well. The other thing is that we’ve spent hours talking about Tiger’s age and demise but nothing about Phil, why?

  22. nevyn49 says:

    I generally agree with the article, but Tiger’s one beacon of hope is the Masters.

    I think he is done as a consistently great golfer, but between the lifetime invitation and there being something about Augusta that the players who can play it tend to stay consistently good at it, TIger is not done there.

    Which to me is almost a pity. He might snag a random masters, and he will undoubtedly contend at a few more, but all that will do is get people hopeful and talking about how he is back. And Tiger is so obviously not back, it makes all the breathless coverage of whether he is and when he will be boring.

    In the last 6 majors we have seen 2 to Rory McIlroy, 2 to Justin Spieth, and 1 to Jason Day. And until Spieth had won his second in a row, a much more followed story through all of them was Tiger. And that is sad. Tiger fans, find a new young golfer to love …. you have options.

  23. Timo says:

    Sometimes the opposite happens. The rangers struck gold signing adrian beltre in his 30s. That guy has had a strange career. Defense is still impeccable. That thumb injurie has hampered him this year, but hes been playing excellent as of late. Hofer for sure.

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