No one knows if Tiger Woods will even be able to play a full season healthy this year, but we do know that if he does, he’ll play the whole season as a 41-year old.
Woods turns 41 on December 30, sitting – as he has for years now – on 14 career major wins and an overall total of 79 PGA Tour victories. But there are no major wins for Woods since 2008 and his last regular season championship was the WGC – Bridgestone Invitational in 2013.
So what does the future hold for Tiger?
Maybe we can get a glimpse by looking into the past at the careers of other great golfers when they were 41 and older.
[bctt tweet=”The top-10 in PGA Tour wins have 511 victories between them: 31 (6%) of those titles were won by players who were age 41 or older.” username=””]
Golf’s Greats at Age 41
Woods, arguably, is chasing Jack Nicklaus for the title of best golfer ever, but he’s running out of years to catch up. Nicklaus won 18 majors and 73 PGA Tour events. He was born in January, 1940 and turned 41 at the start of the 1981 tour season. It wasn’t his best year, but it had to be considered successful: Nicklaus played 16 events, had no wins but finished second three times, had eight top-10s and 13 top-25s. He missed only one cut all year.
Jack played in about 100 tour events after turning 41 and he managed just three wins, including the storied 1986 Masters victory at age 46. In those final 100 tournaments he finished second 13 times – only a stroke or two from victory – and was in contention often, with 37 finishes in the top-10.
An even more successful 41-year old was Arnold Palmer. Palmer’s age turned in September as the 1970 season was winding down, then in 1971 he claimed four of his 62 Tour wins and finished in the top-10 in 10 of his 24 starts.
Arnie’s victories in 1971 included tournaments in California, Florida, and New York and came against fields featuring Nicklaus, Gary Player, Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller, Miller Barber, Tom Weiskopf, Billy Casper, Hale Irwin and Gene Littler.
After his great year as a 41-year old, Palmer had only one more career victory, the 1973 Bob Hope Desert Classic, even though he played in 150 more PGA tournaments before he turned 50.
While Palmer’s career was winding down at the end of 1976, Gary Player celebrated his 41st birthday. For Player, 1977 was a moderately successful year; three wins worldwide, though none in the US. Perhaps it set the stage for his breakout season as a 42-year old when, in successive weeks, he reeled off victories in the Masters, the MONY Tournament of Champions and the Houston Open.
Player had at least 166 worldwide pro victories in his career and 21 of them came after he turned 41 (not counting wins on the senior Champions Tour).
"A pessimist is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities; an optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties".
— Gary Player (@garyplayer) December 13, 2016
Tom Watson also tasted success past 41 with two Tour victories and a heartbreaking second place finish in the 2009 British Open as a 59-year old. In his days as a 41-year old, Watson had six top 10s but no wins in 16 events.
The week after Phil Mickelson turned 41, he tied for second with Dustin Johnson in the 2011 British Open. The next season (still age 41) he won the AT&T at Pebble Beach. Mickelson’s golf stayed strong through his early 40s with a win in Phoenix at 42 and the 2013 British Open as a 43-year old.
Last year, he again almost won the British Open. He’ll start this season age 47 and still a threat to contend in any tournament he enters.
The only golfer to win more PGA Tour events than Tiger Woods is Sam Snead.
Snead finished his career with 82 official victories and 14 of those came after he turned 41 on May 27, 1953. In other words, at age 41, Snead trails Woods in total PGA wins. However, Snead remained competitive for years and had his final career tour win in 1965 as a 53-year old in the Greater Greensboro Open.
As a 41-year old in the second half of the 1953 season and first half of 1954, Snead had two wins including his third Masters.
This was the era of the “American Triumvirate,” Snead, Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson, all roughly the same age.
Just weeks before he turned 41 that August, Hogan finished off his historic triple-crown 1953 season winning the PGA, US Open and Masters, along with two other events. But as a 41-year old Hogan had no wins and one-second place and he only won once more in his PGA career.
Nelson’s best golf was also already behind him when he turned 41; in 1953 he only played in one of the four majors and none of his 52 career wins came after his 40th birthday, though he did finish in the top 10 in the Masters as a 43-year old.
Unlike some of the other great golfers of history, Tiger Woods enters his season as a 41-year old motivated and with something to prove. But from looking at the timelines of other elite players, it’s clear he won’t have too many years remaining in which to be ultra-competitive.
Hale Irwin and Billy Casper won three times after turning 41 while Walter Hagen had two of his 45 wins after reaching that age. Payne Stewart won the 1999 US Open at age 42.
How Will Tiger Fare?
In all, not counting Woods, the top-10 in PGA Tour wins have 511 victories between them: 31 (6%) of those titles were won by players who were age 41 or older. Only Nelson and Dr. Cary Middlecoff in that top-10 had no wins after reaching 41.
If Woods follows that average percentage, we’d expect his 79-win total to increase by four or five victories as he winds down his playing career. That would be enough to take him past Snead (at 82) into first place all time in PGA Tour titles, but it likely will leave him short of Jack’s victory record in the majors.
The best-case scenario for Tiger fans: In his last two non-injury seasons – 2012 and 2013 – Tiger won eight of 35 events. Were he to return in full health, resume that pace and continue it, unlikely as it sounds, for the next five years, he’d be flirting with an almost absurd total of 100 PGA Tour victories.
[bctt tweet=”If Woods follows that average percentage, we’d expect his 79-win total to increase by four or five victories as he winds down his playing career. ” username=””]
The worst-case scenario for Tiger fans: His photo ID may show age 41, but his body is an old 41. The stresses from too many of those massive golf swings take their toll. They may prevent Tiger from ever restoring his swing to the level it needs to be at to win regularly again.
As he closes out his career, will Woods be more like Snead and Player, who between them won 35 times after age 41? Or will he be more like Nelson and Middlecoff, who never hoisted a trophy again after reaching that age?
However it turns out for Tiger Woods, at 41, the clock is ticking.