In just four years, Tiger Woods has gone from winning eight PGA Tour events between 2012 and 2013 (which earned him a PGA Tour Player of the Year award in 2013) to having difficulty rolling his ball onto the green from 15 feet away in 2015.
This collapse may seem sudden, extreme and almost unfathomable to many golf fans, but while a case of the chipping yips is certainly rare in golf, such a decline is not without precedent. In fact, some might say that sudden and rapid declines have actually been quite common among many of the game’s top players throughout history.
Ben Hogan won six majors and 10 total events between 1950 and 1953, with three of those majors and five wins occurring during the 1953 season alone. But at the age of 41, Hogan’s incredible 1953 season basically marked the end of his career. While Hogan remained competitive at some of the majors for several more years, he would go on to win just one more PGA Tour event in 1959.
Hogan suffered life-threatening injuries during a 1949 car accident, but he did not suffer any additional injuries between the 1953 and 1954 seasons.
Hogan’s decline can mostly be attributed to what can only be described as a case of the anti-yips. Instead of bringing his club back slowly and then accelerating quickly through the ball, Hogan had a difficult time just starting his putting stroke during the mid-to-late 1950s.
Arnold Palmer won four PGA Tour events in 1971 but would go on to win just one more PGA Tour event during the remainder of his career. Palmer was 42 years old when his rapid decline occurred.
Tom Watson won three majors between 1982 and 1983 and won three PGA Tour events during the 1984 season. However, throughout the next 14 years of his career, he recorded just three more PGA Tour victories.
Watson’s case of the putting yips reduced him from arguably the top player in the game during the early 1980s to nothing more than a sporadic competitor throughout the rest of his career. He was just 35 years old when his decline officially began.
Nick Faldo essentially fell off the face of the planet after his 1996 Masters victory. Faldo, who was 39 years old then, went on to win just one more professional event and recorded only three more top-10 finishes at majors.
Seve Ballesteros won eight tournaments between 1990 and 1995 and then abruptly disappeared from competitive golf at the age of 38. Ballesteros did not win a single tournament anywhere in the world after the 1995 season and would have had a difficult time hitting a 300-yard-wide fairway off the tee during the late 1990s.
At the age of 43, Gary Player won three PGA Tour events (including the Masters) during the 1978 season. Player would never win another PGA Tour event and won very few other tournaments around the world after 1978.
Even the decline of the great Jack Nicklaus was rather abrupt. The Golden Bear won two majors during the 1980 season but would go on to win just three more events during the next six years. Many point to Nicklaus’ 1986 Masters victory as a pinnacle of longevity in the game of golf, but that win really came out of nowhere.
Nicklaus had recorded just two top-10 finishes at majors in the previous three years and had not even won a tournament in more than two years when the 1986 Masters rolled around. He essentially went from a dominant season that saw him capture two majors in 1980 to nothing more than an occasional factor at big events for the next six years. He was 40 years old when his rapid decline occurred.
Woods is now 39 years old, and has suffered numerous injuries over the past six years having essentially been a professional golfer since the age of 10.
Very few people on this planet have attended more tournaments, traveled more miles or beaten more golf balls than Woods over the past 30 years, which is why Woods is often described as an “old” 39. Flash back throughout the game’s history, and you’ll find this is the age where most great golfers have experienced rather sudden and rapid declines.
To summarise: – Hogan declined at the age of 41 and Palmer at 42. Watson was just 35 when he was afflicted by a case of the putting yips. Faldo was 39 when his game fell of the face of the planet.
Ballesteros was 38 when he lost his ability to hit fairways off the tee. Player was 43 when he went from a three-win season, which included a green jacket, to being virtually nonexistent. Nicklaus was 40 when his abrupt decline began after the 1980 season. And Woods was 39 when his body began to break down and he caught a case of the chipping yips. It all fits.
While there is of course an element of shock when a great athlete goes from dominant to almost nonexistent, a rapid decline around the age of 40 is probably what we should have been expecting from Woods all along. At the end of the day, Woods played golf as well if not better than any great player before him and has also declined in virtually the same manner. History tends to repeat itself; it’s no different for the game of golf.