The face of golf is getting younger. Golfers under age 30 won about half of the events played on the PGA Tour in 2015. This wasn’t always the case -- in the 1990s and 2000s, older golfers dominated. Clearly the Tour’s current crop of young talent is a step ahead of where it has been in the last few decades.
But individual performance and earning potential don’t always line up. Research indicates that performance (as measured by scoring average) peaks in the early 30s and declines from there. Earning potential is another story. So what’s the best time to be a golfer?
I collected money-list data from 1980 to 2015 for the PGA Tour, Web.com Tour and Champions Tour players, which contains events played and money earned for each golfer in each competition per season. I could not account for the flood of money that has poured into golf throughout the Tiger Era, but I did adjust for inflation using the U.S. Consumer Price Index for the year in which the season was played.
Consider the career of a typical top-level PGA Tour pro. Let’s call him “Player X.” He turns pro at age 23 and competes until age 59, playing 25 events per year -- rising and falling in earnings according to an aggregate of the average change in year-over-year earning potential of every golfer in the data set.
Golfers collect increasingly more money per event from the mid-20s into the early 30s – increasing by 8% per season on average between age 25 and age 33. At that point a slow decline begins of 4% per season on average between age 34 and age 49. The largest positive change (105%) occurs between ages 49 and 50 when golfers becoming eligible to play the Champions Tour, but after that one-year blip, the senior pros decline very rapidly after age 50, losing 12% per season between age 51 and age 59.
From the peak in earnings for pre-seniors at age 33 ($36,908) it takes -- on average -- until age 49 for earnings to be cut in half ($18,110). On the Champions Tour, that decline takes only from age 50 to age 57.
Obviously not every pro is able to stay healthy and motivated enough to play elite-level golf for 30 to 40 years. In fact, between age 30 and age 45 more than half of the golfers studied fell out of the sample, meaning they chose to stop playing or couldn’t maintain a spot on one of the three major tours. I’ve adjusted for this attrition by finding the percentage of golfers that exit the professional game per season. Across all ages, roughly 10% leave per year.
Let’s see how Player X fares:
Overall earnings per event rise steadily from the early 20s until the early 30s as Player X improves his performance, hitting peak earnings at age 33. At that point, Player X’s earnings per event will decline (though not steadily) until age 49, when he falls to roughly where he started at age 23. Provided Player X retains the ability and desire to play senior golf, his per event earnings will actually peak in his rookie year on the Champions Tour before falling into a precipitous decline as he ages through his 50s.
Player X will earn just over $17 million in his career if he had played during our time period (roughly 1980 to 2015). This is similar to what steady pros like Larry Mize and Wayne Levi earned in their careers. Not bad.
We can also look at what percentage of career prize money would have been earned at each age. At age 23, Player X would have earned 0% of his career earnings, while at age 59 he would have earned 100%. The ideal earnings period for a golfer is when the curve is moving away from the linear trend line -- basically the decade between 25 and 35. At age 30, about 80% of his career earnings on the course would still be ahead of him. By 36, Player X will have reached the tipping point, having earned approximately half the money he’s likely to earn in his career. Only about 10% of Player X’s earnings will come after turning 50 and joining the Champions Tour.
The important question going forward is whether the influx of young talent changes this curve. If the crop of talented young golfers is a one-time phenomenon driven by the exposure and increase in purses that accompanied Tiger Woods’s rise, this curve will likely be similar 20 years from now. However, should men’s golf continue to produce young talent that is better than previous generations, I predict that careers will get shorter and earning potential in the late 30s and 40s will decline as more of the steady older pros are simply out-played by younger talent.