Have we seen the last of the late bloomers?
By Dan Ross
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?