The cards have been so thoroughly reshuffled in this game. Twenty years ago, the average age of the winners on the West Coast swing – including a 21-year-old by the name of Tiger Woods – was 35. Ten years ago, it was 33. The oldest winner since the start of this calendar year is Dustin Johnson at 32, and the average age of the winners of the first seven events in 2017 is 25. One of them, Justin Thomas, at the tender age of 23 shot the lowest 72-hole score in the history of the PGA Tour. Youngsters aren’t forcing open the gate – they’ve settled in and have their feet up on the coffee table, remote in hand.
With few exceptions, and those generally turning out to be amongst the best players of all time, men’s professional golf has historically been more about experience than youth. A player would come onto the Tour with all the talent in the world, and if he wasn’t gobbled up by the dragons of expectation, he would invariably wrong-foot himself and some squint-eyed veteran would shove all that talent and expectation down his throat.
Jack Nicklaus said that “success [in professional golf] depends almost entirely on how effectively you learn to manage the game’s two ultimate adversaries: the course and yourself.” Most players don’t have the maturity to handle the pressures, either of expectation or intimidation, early on in professional golf and when it comes to the Tour courses, veterans knew them, newcomers didn’t. Young players were at a tremendous disadvantage. That’s how would-be stars became journeymen and journeymen became insurance salesmen.
More recently, however, players are living up to the expectations that precede them to the Tour. In terms of intimidation, there is a certain obliviousness on the part of young professional golfers today that wasn’t present in their predecessors. And course knowledge appears to be about as important as who goes first in Monopoly.
Why is this happening? With regard to course knowledge, the advent of 24/7 golf coverage and detailed topography maps have reduced the necessity of having played a course for years to almost nil. Besides that, scads of young players today can hit it past the trouble and leave themselves short irons, allowing them to get at pins they wouldn’t have been able to decades ago. This mitigates the necessity of strategy, and, it follows, experience. An advantage once enjoyed by just a few players every generation is now enjoyed by all but a few. Why they are all hitting the ball so far is another story.
Of course, technology has played a large part in the increased distances Tour players are flying their shots. Lighter, longer clubs that are more forgiving have given a ferocity to the swings of this generation, replacing the discretion of previous ones. Livelier, more aerodynamic balls have done their part, too. But it’s not just the equipment.
All sports are becoming defined by athletes who are physiologically, almost freakishly, perfect for the unique demands of their competition. In 2014, David Epstein, author of “The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance,” explained that as financial incentives for elite athletes have skyrocketed, a form of artificial selection has taken place.
“Where height is prized, athletes are getting taller; where diminutive size is prized, athletes are getting smaller and where weirdness in body type is prized, athletes are getting weirder. For example, in swimming a long torso and short legs are ideal, the torso acting like the long hull of a canoe over the water. In running, the opposite is ideal: long legs and a short torso.”
Epstein says all we have to do is look at the bodies of Michael Phelps, the greatest swimmer and Olympian ever, and Hicham El Guerrouj, the greatest middle-distance runner of all time, who holds the world record for the mile. Phelps is 6-foot-4 and El Guerrouj is 5-foot-9, yet they wear the same length pants. Seven inches of difference in height but because of different body types, their legs are the same length.
While Tour players are certainly on average taller than they were a few decades ago, it’s not just height that is prized in golf but also the ability, like a gymnast, to contort their bodies and spring and rotate. So when one looks at the landscape of the PGA Tour compared with decades ago, it is now littered with more agile bodies, because of this “artificial selection” and the fact that players are almost universally training more intelligently.
But there is a still-bigger reason for the youthful success that is happening on the PGA Tour. When these early- to mid- 20-somethings were just starting to play the game, they had as their teacher, for the better part of two decades, the greatest example of tenacity and technique in the history of the game. All they had to do was turn the TV on and there was a man who was as good with the scalpel as he was with the cleaver, as herculean in his determination as he was Euclidian. At one point going 14 of 14 with a 54-hole lead in a major, he gave these kids the highest example of athleticism and athletic stoicism. In the same way he psychologically destroyed his competition then, Tiger has psychologically armed the competition today.