(Reuters) - Tiger Woods resumes his quest to catch Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 major titles with his announcement on Friday that he will play in next week’s Masters.
The 39-year-old Woods has won 14 majors with his last coming at the 2008 U.S. Open, and his struggles to regain top form led him to take time off the tour to hone his game.
But the former world number one is not only battling injuries and another swing change as he strives to return to the majors’ winner circle, but also the clock.
Even if Woods was still at the top of his game, his chances of winning five more majors and overtaking Nicklaus are waning by the year and may already be gone.
That is the verdict emerging from an analysis of the age of major champions. As the saying goes, Father Time is undefeated.
Factor in the apparent loss of confidence and long list of surgeries that Woods has had, and it seems the time has come to acknowledge that Nicklaus’s record total is probably safe for at least another decade, if not forever.
An analysis of winners of all 200 majors played over the past 50 years reveals a bell curve with a vast majority won by players aged between 25 and 39, with a handful of outliers younger and older.
Only 18 of the past 200 majors — nine percent — have been won by players in their 40s, which does not augur well for Woods.
Broken into five-year increments, 30-34 is the age category with the most winners (69), followed by the 25-29 age group, with 56 major victories.
So while it is true that golfers generally peak later than athletes in sports requiring heavy physical exertion, professional golf is nonetheless a young man’s game.
The reasons why are open to debate.
One can argue that mental baggage may be a more limiting factor than a decline in skills and physiology in explaining why major victories are so elusive for players in their 40s.
Vern McMillan, a human movement expert who has worked with several leading golfers as well as athletes in other sports, suspects the mental factor is a bigger culprit than the physical one.
“Are the older players more mentally weak? Many people would say yes, because they carry more baggage than younger players,” McMillan, the founder of Every Ball Counts, an elite training facility in Florida, told Reuters.
“The reason why these (older) guys are not winning majors is not because they are physiologically challenged.”
McMillan believes there is no reason why a healthy 45-year-old, or even a 55-year-old who has stayed injury free, cannot win regularly. He says, though, most golfers are not helping their cause by sticking to outdated practice and training regimes.
“Golfers don’t train like elite athletes in a lot of other sports,” he said.
“These guys get stuck on power and lifting weights and the body loses the ability to move because they don’t spend the time on improving their body’s ability to move.”
Whatever the reason, only Nicklaus and Julius Boros have won majors after turning 46.
Nicklaus clinched his 16th and 17th majors at the age of 40, before adding an 18th at the age of 46, while Boros was 48 when he won the 1968 PGA Championship.
The only player other than Nicklaus to win multiple majors in his 40s was Mark O’Meara, who won twice at the age of 41.
Of course, every case is unique and perhaps Woods, who has not captured a major since 2008, can defy the odds and join Nicklaus and O’Meara as a multiple major winner in his 40s.
However, as time marches on, the question that should be asked is not whether he can win five more majors, but whether it is realistic to expect him to win any.
Editing by Larry Fine