Seve and Tiger and Jack

An article about Seve Ballesteros’ recent retirement from competitive golf got me to thinking about how long Tiger is going to be able to sustain his greatness. Here’s the paragraph that piqued my interest:

He won 56 times on the European Tour, all over the continent. He was known for his wayward drives and his amazing acts of recovery, but perhaps it all caught up with him. Ballesteros turned pro at 16. By his early 40s, when many players are still at the top of their games, he was a physical wreck with back problems. His last victory came in the 1995 Spanish Open at age 38.

The author might also have added that Seve won the last of his five majors at age 31.

“I just don’t have the desire,” Ballesteros said of his retirement.

Fires that burn so brightly require a lot of fuel. In several places, I’ve read quotes from Jack Nicklaus saying that his interest in competitive golf began waning at age thirty five. And Jack apparently didn’t play his first full regular round of golf—in competition or otherwise—until he was a teen.

But Seve , who turned PRO at sixteen, obviously was playing golf seriously as a child.

Which brings me to Tiger. Like Seve, he’s been playing golf from a very young age. While he didn’t go pro at sixteen, Tiger was nonetheless playing golf at a very high level, winning national junior titles. (Tiger turned pro at 20; Nicklaus at 22; Palmer at 25).

Will Tiger, like Seve, be a physical wreck in a few years? Given his attention to fitness, it doesn’t seem likely. But then Johnny Miller has observed that the modern golf swing—with its emphasis on torque from the core—creates much more stress on the body than the swing of twenty years ago. Tiger is the poster boy for the modern swing.

More than physical breakdown, though, I wonder about mental wear. Jack says he was losing his focus at thirty five—although he held enough of it to win the Masters at 46. Seve apparently lost it sometime in his mid thirties. Palmer won his last major at 35 and had his real burst of excellence from age 30 to 35.

That means that Jack was able to sustain his intense focus for around thirteen years; Palmer for ten; Seve for perhaps sixteen (it’s possible it was longer because of lesser competition on the European Tour). If Woods has a similar thirteen to sixteen year window, then he may now be nearing the end of his run.

On his thirtieth birthday, Tiger was asked how much longer he intended to play. “Not as long as you think,” was his reply.

I wonder if he knows more than he’s letting on.

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