Distance + Age in Golf
A mailbag #MathMondays was a workload answering a question from @mikemad75 that barely scratches the surface on distance declines by age bracket. The full analysis is on my blog here: https://t.co/S6p3wYnxcf pic.twitter.com/JDLX4iILUE
— Will Haskett (@willhaskett) May 4, 2020
In a slow time for thought-provoking statistics in real golf — we have no real golf — I opened up the Twittersphere to any queries that folks might have about the game. Admittedly, this was a terrifying endeavor because I don’t have the bandwidth of many of my peers to dive quickly into the numbers, but here we go. Thanks to Mike Maddalena for the question…
Is there a huge distance drop off in age bracket? I wonder how the long bombers fair when they get a little older or is it the short hitters that get even shorter as they age?
— Mike Maddalena (@mikemad75) May 3, 2020
This question, at its core, is more subjectively individual to the golfer in question. For instance, Fred Couples was 24th in distance during his age-49 season on Tour in 2009. We’ve documented what Phil Mickelson is doing as he hits 50 this year. Historical “bombers” find a way to keep hitting bombs, health permitting.
That last comment is important because for every Phil, there is a Hank Kuehne, who led the Tour in distance in 2004 but was ravaged by injuries. There is really no debate that age eventually leads to a drop in distance, and while there are cases of veterans finding power surges (see Francesco Molinari in 2018) to improve performance, Father Time is undefeated and there is generally a dip shortly thereafter (see Francesco Molinari in 2019).
So, to answer this question, I found it easier to look at it through two lenses:
- The youth movement of the PGA Tour in the Age of Distance
- The commitment to a new philosophy
*This was all sourced from ESPN.com because they have a handy age tool (thank you, Bristol!)
There should be no surprise that as the group of hitters gets shorter on Tour, the average age of player gets older. What’s most important, to me, is to see how balanced this range has been throughout the entire distance era. Players who hit it 290+ are getting younger on average, but they continue to be below average in terms of age. In fact, in all 5-year increment windows analyzed, that middle tier was between 1 and 2.3 years younger than Tour average.
In 2004, there were 15 players on the PGA Tour who averaged over 300 yards off the tee. That number skyrocketed to 50 last season. However, there were more 40-year-olds (3) who did it in ’04 than last year (2).
While it would be irresponsible of me to make the claim across all of time in golf, it is logical to assume that age has always had an adverse effect on distance in professional golf. This should come as no surprise, but to see it be as gradual and consistent in this era of information shows that it is highly predictable.
Just noticed the error in the final column – avg. distance in 2004 on the PGA Tour was 287.2
This was the one measurement that gave me something to latch on to. You would expect to see a gradual decline in average distance as players age, but the data showed a rise and/or plateau for players in their age-20’s seasons before sliding once they hit their 30’s. That is, until this past season on the PGA Tour, where the young players produced the spike.
This could simply be a Cameron Champ data bias, but I like to think it is representative of a trend that doesn’t get noticed as much as the distance gains – the youth gains. Technology and forgiveness haven’t solely been responsible for the average age on the PGA Tour dropping by over three years in the past 15 seasons. The preparedness of young golfers is greater than ever. I like to point to the growing strength of the college game as a big reason why, but its also greater training, understanding, data, swing tracking, etc. that has players well ahead of the learning curve that only experience and feel could improve in previous generations.
In 2004, young players were still waiting to hit their physical peak. Today, while a 22-year-old still has years to grow physically, advancements in all areas have shrunk the gap between him and his prime, late-20’s, self.
(I’d invest heavily in Jon Rahm futures if I could)
And to answer the initial question, yes, you could say there is a drop off in distance in age bracket. A player in his 40’s is now 3.6% shorter than a young gun fresh on Tour, whereas that number was 2.8% 15 years ago.
There are also just half the total number of players in their 40’s on Tour now than in 2004. It’s
lazy simple to say that distance is the reason for that, when distance has always been a challenge for an aging, veteran player. More likely, the reality is younger players better understand the benefits of length and are built to succeed at an earlier age.