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Britain Is The Home Of Golf. The Old Folks’ Home, That Is.

With first-time winners taking each of the last seven major titles, you might not think experience counts for much in golf anymore. But as the world’s top players head to Royal Birkdale for this week’s (British) Open, it serves as a reminder that the unique challenges of links-style courses still provide at least one championship showcase for golf’s greybeards.

Traditionally speaking, championship golfers do the bulk of their winning in their late 20s and early-to-mid 30s: Since 2000, about 60 percent of major winners were age 32 or younger at the time of their victory. But the big exception seems to be the British Open, whose champs are consistently much older than those of the other majors. Of the five major wins by the 40-and-older set since 2000, only one of them didn’t come at The Open (Vijay Singh’s 2004 PGA Championship win). According to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, the average age for British Open winners since 2000 was 33.7, while the average age for all other major champs was 30.7.

And the results have been even more extreme in recent years, with four 40-somethings winning the Claret Jug this decade,1 and this doesn’t even count Zach Johnson (who won The Open at age 39 in 2015), nor does it reflect the heroic near-misses from old-timers this century, such as 59-year-old Tom Watson’s playoff loss at Turnberry in 2009 and 53-year-old Greg Norman’s third-place finish in 2008 — the last time Birkdale hosted the event. Since 2011, the average age for The Open winners has been 38.5, nearly 10 years older than the average of the other three majors (28.7), according to ESPN Stats & Information.

So why do older players excel at the British? One reason might be in the way experience helps players deal with the ever-changing weather conditions that often beset The Open — and how those same atmospheric effects negate the advantages of long-hitting younger players.

To test this theory, I looked at data provided by Stats & Info for the first two rounds of each British Open since 1983. For players who have birthdate information in the database,2 I broke them down into the following categories: “Young” (ages 28 or below — the youngest 25 percent of players), “Old” (ages 39 or older — the oldest 25 percent of players) and “Regular” (everyone else). I also recorded whether the average score for a given round was more than three strokes over par, considering such rounds to have “high-scoring” conditions. This is admittedly an imperfect proxy for weather effects, but in the absence of tee times and climate data, it will have to do as a means of flagging rounds where conditions were challenging.

When scoring conditions were normal, old and young players shot equally well relative to the field average. (Players who fit neither category shot about a third of a stroke better on average, which makes sense given those players were in the primes of their careers.) But when conditions got bad, the young players shot worse — and the older ones shot better. In high-scoring rounds, young players lost about a third of a stroke per round relative to older players, an even bigger margin than the quarter-stroke they lost relative to prime-aged players.3

When the going gets rough, the old get going

First- and second-round scores vs. field average under normal and high-scoring conditions in the British Open, by age, 1983-2016

NORMAL ROUND HIGH-SCORING ROUND
PLAYER AGE ROUNDS SCORE VS AVG. ROUNDS SCORE VS AVG. DIFF.
Old (39 and older) 1,616 -0.11 730 -0.28 -0.17
Regular (29–38) 2,765 -0.47 1,153 -0.58 -0.11
Young (28 and younger) 1,408 -0.12 726 0.00 +0.12

A “high-scoring round” is one in which the field average was more than three strokes over par.

Source: ESPN Stats & information group

Open weather can infamously turn on a dime, and it requires shots of a very different shape than the usual ones many younger Americans have spent the vast majority of their careers playing. So at least in part, this is evidence that experience — and not raw power — can help a player better navigate around such challenging conditions.

And that shouldn’t be any different this time around, with typical rainy, gusty weather on the forecast for Royal Birkdale. So although this has been a great season for young players on the PGA Tour, don’t be surprised if the sport’s elder statesmen take center stage in England this week.

Footnotes

  1. Henrik Stenson in 2016, Phil Mickelson in 2013, Ernie Els in 2012 and Darren Clarke in 2011.

  2. Because of incomplete data, about 20 percent of players who played in the British Open are missing age information.

  3. It’s a safe assumption that the missing ages in this data set only work in the favor of the younger players: Many of the ones missing are amateurs and fringe international qualifiers, who typically put up worse scores; likewise, past Open winners age 60 or younger, who automatically qualify, also tend to perform poorly, but their ages are reflected here.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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