As Tiger Woods turns 40 (on Wednesday), golf is in the midst of a youth movement. The top 10 in the Official World Golf Ranking features five players in their 20s, compared to only two when Woods made his professional debut in 1996.
Woods’ dominance simultaneously put Jack Nicklaus’ major record within reach and made it more difficult to achieve by inspiring a younger generation of players, who are now winning majors. The average major winner last season was 27 years old, the youngest in a single season since 1997, when Woods won his first professional major start at the Masters.
When Woods turned professional in 1996, the No. 1 player in the world was 41-year-old Greg Norman, and seven of the top 10 players in the world were over 35. Today, just three of the top 10 are over 35, and the top three are all under 30.
Great golf doesn’t end at 40
Injuries aside, turning 40 doesn’t have to be the end of a player’s productive career on the golf course.
The modern record for major victories in a player’s 40s is three, held by both Nicklaus and Ben Hogan. Hogan had his best year at age 40, winning all three of his major championship starts in 1953, but was denied a chance to go for the Grand Slam because of a scheduling conflict between The Open Championship and PGA Championship.
As for PGA Tour wins, Vijay Singh’s 22 are the standard for a player in his 40s. In fact, after turning 40 in February 2003, Singh went on to win 12 times in 52 starts through the end of 2004, including a nine-win season in 2004 in which he won the PGA Championship and set the single-season earnings record.
And it doesn’t have to stop in the 40s: Davis Love III claimed victory at this year’s Wyndham Championship at the age of 51, the third-oldest winner in PGA TOUR history. It was Love’s first win on the PGA TOUR since 2008.
Woods won 14 of his first 46 professional major championship starts, missing the cut just once and posting 22 top-three finishes in that span. But Woods’ last major championship victory came at the 2008 U.S. Open, and he has missed the cut in six of his 24 major appearances since then.
Woods currently stands second in professional major championship victories (14) and PGA Tour wins (79). His last appearance on the PGA Tour came at the Wyndham Championship (Aug. 23), where he finished tied for 10th. Woods played in 11 official events on the PGA Tour in 2015, missing the cut four times, three of which came in majors.
Woods vs. Nicklaus
Why was there such confidence that Woods could top Nicklaus’ major championship victory record? On his 32nd birthday, Nicklaus had won nine majors, half of his eventual total. On Woods’ 32nd birthday, Woods had won 13 majors, including five of his past 12 starts.
But beginning at age 32, Nicklaus won nine majors. Woods has won only one.
The difference between the two is consistency and durability. Woods is turning 40; Nicklaus played every major he was eligible to play for 42 straight years. Nicklaus played 35 majors in his 50s; Woods played 34 majors in his 30s. Woods has played 70 majors as a professional; Nicklaus played 146 straight as a professional.
If Woods had equaled Nicklaus’ major performance in his 30s, he would already have reached 18 wins.
It’s been about a year and a half since the last time Woods was No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking, but injuries and poor performances have driven him down to 416th in the final ranking of 2015. Before this year, the last time Woods was ranked outside the top 400 in the world was the week that he turned pro in 1996.
Woods remains three wins shy of matching Sam Snead’s PGA Tour-record 82 wins, but he’s still well ahead of Snead’s pace. Snead didn’t win his 80th event until the age of 47.
Woods has been a nonfactor in the majors for more than two years (the last time he entered the final round fewer than 10 shots off the lead was the 2013 Open Championship at Muirfield, where he shot a final-round 74 to finish tied for sixth.
No player in the modern era (since the Masters began in 1934) has won four majors after turning 40, which is what Woods would need to do to match Nicklaus.
But this is a different time than the one in which Nicklaus and Hogan each won three majors in their 40s. In the 1950s, when Hogan won three majors as a 40-year-old, the average major winner was 34 years old. Nicklaus turned 40 in 1980, and the average age of a major winner in that decade was 32.4.
In the past two years (eight major winners), the average winner has been 28 years old. In the 1950s and 1980s combined, there were five major winners 25 years old or younger. With four years still remaining in this decade, we have already had eight winners that young, including four in the past six majors.