Tiger Woods, hilariously wearing his typical Sunday garb, red shirt and black pants, joined the CBS booth on Sunday as the tournament he sponsors – the Quicken Loans National – wrapped up at Congressional. When it was time for Tiger to leave, Jim Nantz said the golf megastar was good enough in the booth (and he was) that he could come join him and Nick Faldo. It was clearly a joke, the kind of thing you say to someone who's successfully performed a foreign task. Tiger can read a room, but he took this offhand comment with all seriousness. “I'll stick to playing golf,” he said as a declarative statement.
And thus raised the eternal question: When will Tiger come back, how will he play when he comes back and can he ever regain the form (or even close to the form) he once showed? Good questions all.
Let's play a little game. Let's assume that when the calendar flips to 2017, Tiger Woods will be a healthy player without any golf, health or personal demons clouding his mind and body. Since we're assuming the injuries will be relatively healed, we'll imagine Tiger will be (relatively) 100%. It's not hard if you try: The last time a healthy Tiger was stalking the course, he finished No. 1 on the money list. That was in 2013, one year after he finished No. 2.
So, in this fantasy, Tiger comes back, starts doing Tiger things again, is a contender every time he tees off, wins a small handful of tournaments every season, disrupts the Big Three (or the Big Four if Dustin Johnson decides to join) and wins a major or two to get people talking about that Jack Nicklaus record again. Right?
Not by a long shot. Even in this best-case scenario, the expectations for Tiger would have to be based in some sort of historical reality. Because next season, Tiger will be 41 years old, which sounds crazy – he seems like a youth frozen in time, pumping his fist at the '97 Masters or grinning ear-to-ear on the 18th green at Pebble Beach after his historic 2000 U.S. Open win. He's golf's James Dean. Or at least that's what it seems.
Forty-one years old. That's older than Peyton Manning. He's got six years on Martina Hingis. Pete Sampras is only three years older. Tiger's old, y'all, and he hasn't won a major since he was 32 years old.
And despite what you might think, 41 is old in golf. Guess how many players over 40 are in the top 150 of the 2016 money rankings? Eighteen. That's 12%. Only two players currently on the American or European Ryder Cup teams are older than Tiger.
That stat is deceiving though. Golf may not be an old man's game, but it isn't really a young man's game either, despite what Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Tiger have tried to prove. The average age of players in the top 10 of the world golf rankings is 31.1. That's about the same average and median age for major winners.
Looking back at history is even more daunting. Consider:
1. Four 40+ players have won majors this century, three at the British Open, a tournament at which a 59-year-old Tom Watson should have had a victory. In the other three majors, only one has been won by someone older than Tiger is now: Vijay Singh, who won the PGA in 2004.
2. Ask a golf fan to name the three greatest golfers since Ben Hogan. Almost all would say, in some order, Jack, Arnie and Tiger. Arnold Palmer won no majors after turning 35. THE KING. NO MAJORS AFTER 35. Let that one percolate. And for all the (deserved) fuss about Jack winning the Masters at 46, that was the only major Nicklaus won after turning 41, the age Tiger will be next season.
3. Let's go back 25 years – a nice round number. Since 1991, the following men have won majors after turning 41:
Tom Kite, 42, U.S. Open, 1992
Ben Crenshaw, 43, Masters 1995
Mark O'Meara, 41, Masters, 1998
Mark O'Meara, 41, British Open, 1998
Payne Stewart, 42, U.S. Open, 1999
Vijay Singh, 41, PGA Championship, 2004
Darren Clarke, 42, British Open, 2011
Ernie Els, 42, British Open, 2012
Phil Mickelson, 43, British Open, 2013
There have been 98 majors in that span. Nine have been won by men over 40, with only one two-time winner.
4. Let's go back 50 years and 200 majors. We add, in order of oldest to youngest, Julius Boros (48 at 1968 PGA), Jack (46 at 1986 Masters), Hale Irwin (45 at 1990 U.S. Open), Lee Trevino (44 at 1984 PGA), Roberto de Vicenzo (44 at 1967 British Open), Raymond Floyd (43 at 1986 U.S. Open) and Gary Player (42 at 1978 Masters). Let's make that 16 winners in the past half-century, a total of 8% of winners. Of those winners
• Four were by all-time greats (Nicklaus, Trevino, Player, Mickelson). Each only one once after 41. (Going way back, Sam Snead also won a major – the 1954 Masters – at 41.)
• The only man to win multiple majors after turning 41? Tiger's buddy, Mr. O'Meara. That's an unbelievable stat (and fodder for a great 19th hole debate).
• Names conspicuous in their absence: Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, Nick Faldo, Seve Ballesteros and, though they preceded the list, Ben Hogan, Gene Sarazen and Byron Nelson. (Hogan did win three majors at age 40, however.)
5. Majors are the measuring stick, but how about regular tournaments? Here's a list of the 10 winningest PGA golfers of the past 50 years, how many regular tournaments they won after turning 41, their age at winning their last major and their age at which they won their last tournament of any kind. Keep in mind something that Jack Nicklaus often says: Fields are so much deeper today than they used to be.
Jack Nicklaus: 3 of 73 (.041); 46 at last major; 46 at last win
Arnold Palmer: 5 of 62 wins (.086); 34 at last major; 43 at last win
Billy Casper: 3 of 51 wins (0.59); 38 at last major; 43 at last win
Phil Mickelson*: 4 of 42 (.095); 43 at last major; 43 at last win
Tom Watson: 2 of 39 (.051); 33 at last major; 48 at last win
Vijay Singh*: 18 of 34 (.529); 41 at last major; 45 at last win
Lee Trevino: 2 of 29 (.069); 44 at last majorl 44 at last win
Johnny Miller: 1 of 25 (.040); 29 at last major; 46 at last win
Gary Player: 3 of 24 (.125); 41 at last major; 41 at last win
Raymond Floyd: 4 of 22 (.181); 43 at last major; 49 at last win
A few takeaways:
• Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer had 135 career wins. Eight of them came after turning 41, the age Tiger Woods will turn in December.
• Six of these players won a major after turning 41. None of them won more than one.
• Vijay Singh was an anomaly and a freak. He won more than half his tournaments after turning 41 (all in a four-and-a-half-year span). The Fijian had five wins before turning 35. He had 29 after. Boss. (And he's still active and was on the leaderboard this weekend at Congressional, a fact that caused hundreds of thousands across the country to say, “wait, Vijay is still playing?)
• The winningest players of the last century had 47 wins in 401 starts (11.2%) after turning 41. Take Vijay Singh out of that and it's 29 wins in 367 starts (7.9%).
Golf, unlike the sport it's most often compared to (tennis), hasn't seen a radical shift in the age of successful players. The sport has always seen young stars, players peaking in their late-20s and early-30s (with a few outliers) and enough 40-year-old champions to keep it interesting, but almost none of the dominant variety.
What does it all mean? IF Tiger Woods comes back and IF he's healthy and IF he's relatively the same player he was in his 20s and 30s, then, by comparison to the only two players in the same stratosphere in which he operated, Tiger would be good for between two and eight PGA tour wins and one major, with two representing a new record for players older than 41. Tiger Woods has done unbelievable, historic and unprecedented things before, so count him out at your own peril. But if you still harbor any grand expectations about a return to form, it's time to face reality.