When a young player comes close to winning, it’s inevitable that a comment will be made, most likely by someone who has won a lot of money playing golf, that the young golfer in question is primed to win a bunch of tournaments in his career. Whether young golfers are really guaranteed future success can be examined through the lens of GPR.
First, let’s look at the best seasons by a 21-year old since 1960. (Thanks to Neil Paine at sports-reference.com for supplying me with earnings information for previous seasons, yesterday’s chart has been updated to include golfers from the ‘60’s. You should visit sports-reference.com for your historical sports data needs, including college hoops.)
1973 Ben Crenshaw 429 1981 Bobby Clampett 202 1990 Robert Gamez 149 1997 Tiger Woods 473 2001 Sergio Garcia 350 2010 Rory McIlroy 213 2010 Rickie Fowler 136
Seven golfers have posted a GPR of at least 100 in the last 50 years. The four non-Woods golfers with a reasonably long track record have won a total of two majors, both by Ben Crenshaw. Crenshaw’s number here includes money he would have made had he not had amateur status in four of the ten tournaments he played.
Crenshaw’s career was an unqualified success, though he was never a dominant player. Including the two majors, he won 19 PGA events across 23 years. Sergio may yet still win a major (or two) and he’s had a bit more success than Crenshaw to this point. There’s plenty of time for him to find his game again, but whether they were fair or not, I’m not sure he’s met the expectations he had earned to this point.
The future also looked bright for both Clampett and Gamez at 21, but things didn’t go according to plan. The GPR plots for both reveal quick flame-outs.
Actually, Gamez deserves some kind of award for consistently doing the minimum to keep his card. He played a regular tour schedule every season from 1990 to 2008 despite posting a GPR over 100 just twice. Clampett quit the tour to join CBS after his 1995 season with but one tour victory to his credit.
To increase our sample, let’s look at the best seasons at age 22.
1962 Jack Nicklaus 319 1965 Raymond Floyd 146 1972 Lanny Wadkins 189 1974 Ben Crenshaw 117 1976 Jerry Pate 228 1980 Gary Hallberg 163 1982 Bobby Clampett 188 1998 Tiger Woods 353 2001 Charles Howell III 138 2001 David Gossett 108 2002 Sergio Garcia 229 2003 Adam Scott 154 2005 Sean O'Hair 132 2010 Jason Day 162
There are a few new names on this list. Floyd would win four majors in a career that included a runner-up in the Masters at 49. Wadkins had a long a successful career, winning 30 times on tour including the 1977 PGA, his only major. Pate was a force on tour from ’76 through ’82. He won his first major as a pro, the ’76 U.S. Open. He would finish in the top ten in 11 of his first 27 professional major starts. After that, shoulder problems hastened a move to the broadcast booth.
Hallberg’s first year on tour included six top tens in 15 events. However, he barely made half of the cuts in the 568 events he played during his career. There are eight combined major wins among the non-Woods/Nicklaus players on the age 22 list. Of course, it’s probably important that Woods and Nicklaus are on this list. If one is going to win a boatload of majors, they need to be pretty damn good at 22. McIlroy will be on this list, too. His 2011 hasn’t been as domainant as Woods’ 1998 or Nicklaus’s 1962, but there’s half a season of golf left.
(Pardon the mild tangent here, but I love this piece from a year ago by Geoff Calkins on David Gossett. No doubt, talent and hard work are necessary to be successful, but there are lots of guys with talent that are working hard to be successful. Luck plays a role as well. And by luck, I don’t mean a player just happens to hit good shots. No doubt, Kenny Perry was a great golfer at age 47 and 48. However, there was some good fortune in that Perry happened to find a swing at age 47 that made him one of the best players in the world. Vijay Singh, the hardest worker on the planet and not long ago one the best players in the world, has played significantly worse than Perry at the same age. It’s not all about hard work and talent.)
Back to regularly-scheduled programming: For what it’s worth, the age-23 list features some golf luminaries. For brevity, only names not appearing on the above lists are included here.
1968 Tony Jacklin 142 1973 Tom Watson 116 1975 Bruce Lietzke 106 1981 John Cook 121 1983 Fred Couples 158 1987 Davis Love III 134 1988 Scott Verplank 133 1990 Billy Mayfair 174 1993 Phil Mickelson 178 1995 David Duval 195 1995 Justin Leonard 139 2001 Matt Kuchar 113 2004 Adam Scott 373 2008 Anthony Kim 291
Every player on this list before 2000 had a long and successful career, and it looks reasonable that the quartet after 2000 is going to do fine (although there may be some doubts about Kim). Still, just two of these players have won multiple majors. Which begs the question: What’s a reasonable over/under on the number of majors McIlroy wins in his career? 2? 3? 4? Four seems to be stretching it, although given McIlroy’s age, there’s still hope he’ll win a lot more than that. Of course, it may be equally as likely that he’s Bobby Clampett.
Being the best young player of your generation is a good indication that you’ll have a successful career, but it’s far from a guarantee of future greatness. Being the best player in the world while also being much younger than your contemporaries is a much better predictor of long-term dominance. McIlroy has three top-fives in majors so far, and that doesn’t include his 54-hole lead at this year’s Masters. His success in majors through the Masters at age 22 is similar to Woods and Nicklaus, and while one wouldn’t bet on it, there’s a chance he’ll be the best player in the world by age 23. If he does that, then we’ll need to revisit my estimate.