Lots of guys take up golf as grown-ups after they age out of contact team sports and then develop an obsession with the game. But is there an age window before you are fully grown that determines whether you can make it to the top? This seems like a good nature-nurture subject to explore.
Back in the 1980s, two star golfers hadn’t taken up golf until their early 20s: 3-time major champion Larry Nelson, who first started playing after getting home from combat in Vietnam at age 21, and 12-time tour winner Calvin Peete, the top African-American golfer of the decade.
I’m not familiar with any since then, although I don’t follow the game that closely these days. Do you know of any more examples?
Allen Doyle didn’t turn pro until age 46 and went on to win four major championships on the Senior Tour (half as many as Jack Nicklaus — note that being half as good as Jack means you are an extremely good golfer). But he started golf at 14 (but concentrated on hockey in college) and played regularly on the amateur circuit as a businessman.
Golf has a Champions Tour for guys at least 50-years-old, so, theoretically, there is plenty of time for a guy to take up golf as an adult and get good enough to qualify for the senior tour. Lots of team sport jocks like Michael Jordan have talked about doing that in retirement, but it doesn’t seem to happen much.
One of the reasons Tony Romo quickly retired as a quarterback after getting displaced by a star rookie in Dallas rather than hanging around the NFL for a couple more big paydays is so he can concentrate on his golf ambitions. He has scrupulously maintained his amateur status, donating all his prize winnings in celebrity tournaments to charity, so he can make a run at the U.S. Amateur title some day. But, so often, with golf …
Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
NBA star Steph Curry, with his wonderful eye-hand coordination, is getting to be a quite good golfer. (He played on his high school golf team, so he’s not a novice.) It’s easy to project him as a Champions Tour player in 25 years, but that kind of development seldom happens.
A more subtle question, besides the obvious one about an age window, is whether becoming great at a different sport precludes you from becoming great at golf. For example, there are obvious similarities between swinging a hockey stick or swinging a baseball bat and swinging a golf club. And, indeed, many pro NHL and MLB players retire to the golf course where they are very good golfers. Some had played a fair amount of golf as teens. For example, I was at the big money Sherwood Country Club for a social event a few years ago and I picked up the club newsletter. On the cover was a picture of the winner of a recent club golf tournament: Wayne Gretzky, probably the greatest hockey stick handler ever.
On the other hand, very few retired team sport stars like Gretzky ever make it to the senior tour pro level, even if they started golf as a hobby when young. Does mastering one kind of sport somehow impede world class mastery in another sport, other than just the opportunity cost of lost practice at a young age? Does, say, Gretzky’s muscle memory of how to hit a slap shot somehow subtly interfere with him ever quite learning to hit a golf shot as well as his quasi-son-in-law Dustin Johnson?