Life expectancy of a major player – golfers – Brief Article

Jerry Tarde

For Couples, Norman and Faldo, the window of opportunity in the majors is closing

A prominent woman I know, unnamed here for reasons that will become apparent, was asked by an acquaintance if she had ever shot her age. “George,” she said, “I’m only 56!” That faux pas occurred many years ago, but the lady finally did the deed last summer at age 69, and among the first persons she notified was George. “You finally got it right,” she said.

Golf has a way, more than any other sport, of intertwining with our life expectancy. There’s even a certain morbid appeal to golf. When a doctor friend died, he asked for his ashes to be spread around the second hole at Pine Valley, “because it was one green I never could get on.” Another fellow, disturbingly close to my own age, just celebrated his 43rd birthday noting that he was “playing down life’s 11th fairway.”

The idea of being past the turn, closer to the final hole than the first, set me back a bit. I hadn’t thought of it that way. With life expectancy in the United States nearly 76, the math works out to roughly one hole every 4.2 years — at 50 you’re completing the12th, at 60 you’re on 15. The game’s not necessarily over at 76, but you are into extra holes.

All of this is a rather slow way of getting to my point this month: that major champions have an even shorter life expectancy.

If you’re in that rarefied air of golfers who win major professional championships, you have only a heartbeat to do it in. The window of opportunity is open only eight years. Once you’ve won your first major, you have, on average, eight seasons to win whatever majors are left in you.

Bobby Jones was the classic example. All his majors came over eight years, between 1923 and 1930. But my calculations here are based on the modern era of professional majors.

Since the coming of the Masters in 1934, there have been 42 multiple major champions (winners of two or more). Of those, 30 won their majors in a span of 10 years or less. This includes most of the acknowledged greats: Ben Hogan (8 years), Byron Nelson (7), Arnold Palmer (7), Tom Watson (9), Seve Ballesteros (10) and Nick Faldo (10). And the almost greats: Ralph Guldahl (3), Cary Middlecoff (8), Bernhard Langer (9), Johnny Miller (4), Greg Norman (8), Larry Nelson (7), Bobby Locke (9), Nick Price (3).

The notable exceptions among those who won three-plus majors over more than a decade: Jack Nicklaus, always the exception (18 pro majors over 25 years), Gary Player (20 years), Raymond Floyd (18), Julius Boros (17), Lee Trevino (17), Henry Cotton (15), Hale Irwin (15), Sam Snead (13), Peter Thomson (12), Billy Casper (12) and Jimmy Demaret (11).

You could point to Player and say it was fitness and health that made the difference, but then how do you explain Casper, Floyd and Boros? Pure athleticism counts for something, but Snead’s 13 seasons is a short span relative to his 65-year career.

It seems the determining factor is not so much the age of the player, but how long and how hard the campaign has been waged. Seve, for example, was through at 32 with the 1988 British Open, but his first had come at 22; both were at Royal Lytham, like bookends on either side of his career. Arnie was done by the 1964 Masters; his troops hadn’t noticed 10 years later.

On the basis of past performance, a few prognostications are in order:

1. Once you start winning, you had better win while you can, because the meter ticks relentlessly. Tiger Woods should pay heed: He’s got till 2004; everything after that is borrowed.

2. Late starters take solace. David Duval, Phil Mickelson, even Colin Montgomerie have not put their quarter in the meter yet. Hogan didn’t start till age 33.

3. Don’t wait too long. Mark O’Meara need look no further than Craig Wood: two majors in one year, and that was that.

4. Some major champions are finished and they don’t even know it. There have been 14 seasons since Norman’s first victory in a major; 13 since Faldo’s; 11 since Payne Stewart’s; nine since John Daly’s; eight since Price’s and Couples’. The odds are, we’ve seen the last of them all.

There will be exceptions to this rule, always have been. Exceptions are what sports are about.

We all want to shoot our age. We all want to live to be 100. Wouldn’t it be fun to do both, in reverse order?

COPYRIGHT 1999 New York Times Company Magazine Group, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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