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Have we seen the last of the late bloomers?

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By Dan Ross

GolfWRX Contributor

It might be said that there has been a wonderful tradition of “late bloomers” in professional golf. Depending on your interpretation, such players might include (in no particular order) Ben Hogan, Vijay Singh, Larry Nelson, K.J. Choi, Kenny Perry, Fred Funk and Steve Stricker. You could even stretch things further and mention players like Jay Haas and Loren Roberts, who one could argue played their strongest golf upon joining the Champions Tour later in their careers, while showing no real hints of dominating play during their years on the PGA Tour, despite owning solid resumes.

“Late bloomer” can be defined a few different ways. For our purposes, let’s focus on two particular interpretations.

  • Those career pros who win the majority of their tournaments in the  middle and later stages of their career.
  • Those who take up the game relatively “late,” and then moved quickly to playing golf at the highest levels, OR those who reach the PGA Tour at a point that might be characterized as “mid-career” for others.

Ben Hogan could serve as an example of the first definition. Strange as it may sound, it took Mr. Hogan nearly ten years on the professional circuit before he won his first tournament on the PGA Tour. Even more interesting, is that his first major championship victory came an additional six years after his first professional win. The vast majority of Mr. Hogan’s tour wins (nearly 50 out of 64 total) and ALL of his nine major championship victories came after he turned thirty years old.

For the second definition, I feel K.J. Choi might be a good example. Mr. Choi earned his first PGA Tour win in 2002, at age 32. His most recent and highest profile victory at the Player’s Championship (arguably the strongest non-major tournament in golf) came just shy of 40 years old. Throughout his thirties, Choi has earned eight professional wins on the PGA Tour.

However, let’s narrow the focus a little further from here. Rightly or wrongly, the current point of measure of a PGA Tour professional’s career is the number of major championships they have won. With this in mind, perhaps the most recent example of a late bloomer (at least as far as major championships go) is Phil Mickelson. All of Mr. Mickelson’s four major wins have come in his thirties (his fourth title just shy of age 40), with his first in 2004 at the age of 33. To be fair, Mickelson already had a very strong career before his first major victory; long holding the title of “Best Player Without a Major.” This fact may or may not mitigate a description of Mickelson as a late bloomer in terms of overall career wins.

If you add in career wins and majors, Vijay Singh stands out as a strong recent example of a late bloomer; apart from Mr. Hogan, perhaps the strongest example. Despite having a successful early career on the European Tour, Singh earned ALL of his PGA Tour wins after turning 30. To date, that means 34 victories, including three majors. Additionally, Singh holds the most PGA Tour victories (22) after the age of 40.

So this leads to my ultimate question: Given the abundance of young talent on all of the major tours, is it possible we will still see examples of late blooming professionals to the same degree as we have seen previously? A few other golfers in their 30s include Nick Watney, Luke Donald, Sergio Garcia and Jason Dufner — will these golfers produce a mid-career streak like Hogan? Will any of them win their first major before age 40?

Also, we can’t count out the forty-somethings on Tour. This list now includes Steve Stricker, K.J. Choi and Robert Allenby. These gentlemen represent a rare group of champion golfers who are still active after turning 40 without having earned a major. Will any of these pros earn a major title in their 40s like Singh did?

The notion of the late bloomer in professional golf is one of selfish optimism for many self-imposed amateurs in their 30s and 40s. It is a dirty and addictive (sometimes destructive) little thought we all entertain from time to time like when the boss is being hard to please or the kid’s braces take the cash you set aside for some new clubs, especially when you see some glimpse of previous form during a tournament. Those of us who showed very early promise in our teens and twenties only to see golf fall by the wayside as family and career responsibilities creep in cherish the idea that, if we didn’t have anything to lose otherwise, we “could make it in pro golf … if … ”

Ah, but it is the “if” that gets us every time! “If only I could putt better,” or “If only I could practice more,” and especially, “If only I had the time and money.” So instead, we come home after work and turn on the TV and wonder if we don’t have more in common with some of the (somewhat) older players on Tour who haven’t yet had breakthrough years.

So, who are YOUR choices to win big … late. Or, are late bloomers a thing of the past?

Click here for more discussion in the “Tour Talk” forum. 

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GolfWRX is the world's largest and best online golf community. Expert editorial reviews, breaking golf tour and industry news, what to play, how to play and where to play. GolfWRX surrounds consumers throughout the buying, learning and enrichment process from original photographic and video content, to peer to peer advice and camaraderie, to technical how-tos, and more. As the largest online golf community we continue to protect the purity of our members opinions and the platform to voice them. We want to protect the interests of golfers by providing an unbiased platform to feel proud to contribute to for years to come. You can follow GolfWRX on Twitter @GolfWRX and on Facebook.

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Jason Day’s performance coach, Jason Goldsmith, joins the 19th hole

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In this episode of the 19th Hole, Jason Goldsmith of FocusBand talks about how the breakthrough technology has helped PGA Tour stars Jason Day and Justin Rose to major wins. Also, host Michael Williams gives his take on Tiger Woods’ return to golf.

Click here to listen on iTunes!

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Ari’s Course Reviews: Oakmont Country Club

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Editor’s Note: Ari Techner is a well-traveled, golf-course connoisseur who’s setting out to review the best golf courses in the world. The views and opinions expressed in these reviews are his own. 

Oakmont Country Club. The name alone strikes fear into the heart of any mortal golfer. Oakmont has a reputation for difficulty unmatched in the golf world; it’s fear forged in the public’s eye while watching best players in the world struggle during the U.S. Open every 10-plus years or so. There is a notion that Oakmont could hold a U.S. Open just about any day of the year. This is not a course that needs to be tweaked from its daily setup to test the best in the world.

All that said, a close look at the course reveals that there is so much more to Oakmont than just difficulty. Since around 1950, MANY courses have been built with the dilebrate intention of holding a U.S. Open. Most, if not all, of these courses are filled with water hazards, extremely long holes and very little variety. Oakmont is the exact opposite of that, and this is what is at the core of its greatness.

A view from the ninth fairway

Oakmont Country Club first opened in 1903 and was designed by Henry Fownes, who built it because he felt the other courses around Pittsburgh were not difficult enough. The course was constantly tweaked in the early years by Fownes and his son William. Both Fownes were accomplished players with William winning the U.S. Amateur in 1910 and serving as the playing captain of the first U.S. Walker Cup team in 1922.

Trees, or no trees?

The 18th tee

The course was extremely influential in the development of early golf courses in America. It was equally influential in future years by setting trends that have changed the way many other courses have evolved. When Oakmont opened, it was built in an open field and had no trees on the course, adding to the links-like flavor that Fownes wanted from his visits overseas. In the 1950s (after all the Fownes had left the club) Oakmont added thousands of non-native trees to line the corridors of the holes, a look that was a heavy trend of the time. This work was mostly done by Robert Trent Jones, who also modified the bunkers to fit more of his style of the time.

The course continued to evolve over the years with the bunkers being restored by Tom Fazio… but the trees remained. In preparation for the 2008 U.S. Open, Oakmont cut down thousands of trees, returning the course to its open, windswept origins. This was very controversial among the members, and much of the work was done in the middle of the night in the off-season so as not to cause a big stir. After 2008, thousands more trees have been cut down, opening all of the amazing long views across the property. You can see almost every hole on the property from just about every spot on the course. Oakmont was the first course to embrace this massive tree removal and it has turned into a trend with hundreds of classic courses removing their non-native trees and going back to their more open original layouts.

Oakmont is the only course that Fownes designed and I believe that contributes greatly to its uniqueness. Fownes’ version of difficulty did not include artificial water hazards, out of bounds or excessive bunkering fronting greens, and it did not rely simply on longer-than-average holes to challenge the golfer. Instead, it has an amazingly varied mix of holes that challenge the golfer in a variety of ways both mentally and physically. Overall, the course requires you to be a straight driver of the ball, a good iron player and to have a deft short game and putting touch. You also need to be able to think your way around the course while you execute the shots you choose at a high level.

A good variety

Oakmont has its share of length with long par 4s, such as hole Nos. 1, 10, 15 and 18, the monster par-5 12th and long par 3s such as Nos. 8 and 16.  What sets the course apart to me, however, are the short holes and the holes that require strategic decision-making off the tee. These include short par 4s such Nos. 2, 11 and 17 and mid-length par 4s including Nos. 5 and 14.  These holes can be just as difficult as the long ones, and they require a completely different skill set.  The short par-3 13th and short par-5 9th (plays as a par 4 for the U.S. Open) round out what is an amazing set of shorter holes.

A view of the ninth fairway from across the Pennsylvania Turnpike

The course uses the natural movement of the site very well and has a tight, extremely walkable routing despite being bisected by the Pennsylvania Turnpike at the bottom of the hill in the middle of the property. I particularly love the fallaway greens at 1, 10, 12, and to a lesser degree 3 and 15 where the front of the green is higher than the back. This is a unique look that you do not see in the USA very often. Without the little backboard that a back-to-front sloping green provides, you must hit the ball solid or execute a well played run-up shot to hold the green. The short par 4s temp the long hitter just enough to make them think about hitting driver, but wayward shots are punished enough to make most think twice. The 17th, at a little under 300 yards, could be the hardest hole on the course, and yet it is definitely drivable for the right player who hits a great drive. The small and extremely narrow green requires a short shot be hit the perfect distance if you decide to lay up to the right down the fairway. Hit it even a little short and you end up in the aptly named “Big Mouth” bunker which is extremely deep. Hit it a hair long or with not enough spin to hold the green and you end up rolling over the green into one of a few smaller bunkers. Carry the bunkers on the left side off the tee into the sliver of fairway up by the green and you have a short, open shot from a much better angle into the fatter part of the green. Such risk/reward and great use of angles is paramount to Oakmont’s genius.

Green complexes are…complex

The green on the 18th hole

Oakmont also sports one of the best sets of greens anywhere in the world.  They are all heavily contoured and very challenging, yet playable. You can certainly make putts out there if you are putting well, but get on the wrong side of the hole and you are left with an extremely difficult, but rarely impossible 2 putt. They are also very unique due to Fownes only designing one course, as they do not look like any other classic course; they have a feel all their own. They are mostly open in front, coming from the correct angle, and they have many squarish edges. They also cut the tight fringe far back into the fairway, which aids in run-up shots; it also gives a great look where the green and the fairway blend together seamlessly.

The bunkering is also very unique and very special… and they are true hazards. Find yourself in a fairway bunker off the tee, and you are likely wedging out without much of any chance of reaching the greens. The green-side bunkers are fearsome, very deep and difficult. The construction of the bunkers is unique too — most of them have very steep and tall faces that were built up in the line of play. Oakmont is also home to one of the most famous bunkers in golf; the “Church Pews” bunkers — a large, long rectangular bunker between the fairways of holes 3 and 4 with strips of grass in the middle like the pews in a church. There is also a smaller “Church Pews” bunker left of the fairway off the tee on hole 15. Hit it into one of these two bunkers and good luck finding a descent lie.

Ari’s last word

All-in-all, along with being one of the hardest courses in the world, Oakmont is also one of the best courses in the world. It is hard enough to challenge even the best players in the world day-in and day-out, but it can easily be played by a 15-handicap without losing a ball. It is extremely unique and varied and requires you to use every club in your bag along with your brain to be successful. Add that to a club that has as much history as any other in the county, and Oakmont is one of golf’s incredibly special places.

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Courses

Coming Up: A Big Golf Adventure

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My name is Jacob Sjöman, and I’m a 35-year-old golf photographer who also enjoys the game we all love. I will be sharing some experiences here on a big golf trip that we are doing. With me I’ve got my friend Johan. I will introduce him properly later, but he is quite a funny character. According to Johan, he is the best golf photo assistant in the world, and we will see about that since this is probably his biggest test yet doing this trip. Previously on our trips, Johan almost got us killed in Dubai with a lack of driving skills. He also missed a recent evening photo shoot in Bulgaria while having a few beers too many… and that’s not all.

Anyway, the last couple of days I’ve been packing my bags over and over. I came home from the Canary Islands this Sunday and I’ve been constantly checking and rechecking that we’ve got all the required equipment, batteries, and that the cameras are 100 percent functional and good to go for this golf trip. I’m still not sure, but in a couple of minutes I will be sitting in a taxi to the airport and there will be no turning back.

Where are we going then? We are going to visit some of the very best golf courses in New Zealand and Australia. There will be breathtaking golf on cliffsides, jaw-dropping scenic courses, and some hidden gems. And probably a big amount of lost balls with a lot of material produced in the end.

I couldn’t be more excited for a golf journey like this one. Flying around the globe to these special golf courses I’ve only dreamed about visiting before gives me a big kick and I feel almost feel like a Indiana Jones. The only thing we’ve got in common, though, is that we don’t like snakes. Australia seems to be one of the worst destinations to visit in that purpose, but all the upsides are massive in this.

First, we will take off from a cold Stockholm (it’s raining heavily outside at the moment) and then we will do our first stop at Doha in Quatar. Then after two more hours, we are finally heading off to Auckland on the north island of New Zealand, a mega-flight of 16 hours. I believe that could very well be one of the longest flights available for a ordinary airplane. I need to check that.

Flights for me usually mean work, editing photos from different golf courses I’ve visited, writing some texts, editing some films, and planning for the future. Last time, though, I finally managed to sleep a little, which is a welcome progress for a guy that was deadly scared of flying until 2008.

Now, I am perfectly fine with flying. A few rocky flights over the Atlantic Sea to Detroit helped me a lot, and my motto is now, “If those flights got me down on the ground safely, it takes a lot of failures to bring down a plane.”

Anyway, I hope you will join me on this golf trip. Stay tuned!

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19th Hole

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