Golfing age tells you little about playing ability: Take on your old man at your peril

Golf is one of the few sporting activities where raw ability clearly diminishes with age. Running, football, swimming, gymnastics, you name it, all give the younger participants clear advantages over those who are older. While some skills in golf supposedly taper with age, e.g. putting, one’s ability to hit a ball far and accurately don’t slip so drastically. We see proof of that each year when great older professionals like Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus, and Gary Player tee up with the current crop of top professionals. Even if ability tapered rapidly, golf handicaps mean that players of different abilities can always match themselves. But, it’s sweeter to play without handicapping and see how the ability and age mix filter out.

Professional golf acknowledges this slow tapering by having its Champions Tour, which is ‘a golf tour run by the PGA Tour, hosts a series of events annually in the United States and the UK, for golfers 50 years of age and older. While a senior PGA Championships had been going on since the late 1930s, the new tour got underway, formally, in 1980. Most of the tournaments are played over three rounds (54 holes), which is one round less than regular professional stroke play tournaments on the PGA Tour. Because of this and having smaller fields, there are generally no ‘cuts’ between any of the rounds. However, the five senior majors have a full 72 holes (four rounds). Other allowances have been made for age, e.g., in 2006, the Champions Tour Division Board of the PGA Tour organization voted to allow players the option to use golf carts during most events on the tour. The five major championships and certain other events, including pro-ams, are excluded.

Imagine, if the EPL, or NFL, or Major League Baseball or track and field had formal schedules for older players. Does it bear thinking about Shaq trying to dunk as a 50 year old, and landing heavily on MJ? Tennis has tried to keep retired player swinging hard with its PowerShares series (of 12-city one night tournaments over a two month period in the spring) for ‘legends’. But, that means old stagers like John McEnroe trying to cope with new retirees like James Blake and Andy Roddick. It’s not as one-sided as one might imagine, but still.

The joy of this is that seemingly dorky things like parent-child tournaments can take on good competitive interest, as when the Haas family (Dad, Jay, now in his 60s, and still very good, and son, current excellent pro, Bill, in his early 30s) team up.

As in many sports, young players get their start through playing with a parent. But, in golf, that contest may stay fresh for decades. Turning points in junior careers can come at many times, such as when the kid wins a hole, or a 9-hole match, or a full round, or breaks 100, 90, 80, 70, and takes the parent ‘to the cleaners’ in the process.

As I write, we see this inter-generational interplay at a high level. Jamaica’s team has two pairs of father-son representatives, from the Knibbs (over 50s) and Newnham (not yet there) fathers playing in different categories from their sons, who tee it up with the region’s premier amateur golfers.

William Knibbs may not be able to stay in front of his dad for a whole round
William Knibbs may not be able to show his dad his back for a whole round
Radcliffe Knibbs, ready and able to take on his son, any day, anywhere :-)
Radcliffe Knibbs, ready and able to take on his son, any day, anywhere 🙂

In our little world of the Caribbean, it will be interesting to see who has the family bragging rights at the end of play in the Caribbean Amateur Golf Championships. Jamaica may win overall. But, where will the pairs of fathers and sons finish in their individual categories, and whose scores will be the better? Whose shots will be the highlights? Who may end up as an winner in his own right? Who will do better or worse than their father at the same age?

However that works out, one can only imagine the pride and joy in the households as the stories get told and retold. “Well done, son!” may seem like not much, even with a “I owe it to you, Dad,” to follow.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)