This Isn’t the PGA Tour’s First Youth Movement — And It Won’t Be the Last!

September 8, 2015

The biggest story in golf over the past few years has been the emergence of young stars – Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler and Jason Day, among others – to fill the void left by Tiger Woods’ decline. These 20-somethings are clearly dominating the game right now, having won six of the last eight major championships and claiming four of the top five spots in the latest Official World Ranking. In fact, Fowler’s win this week at the Deutsche Bank Championship marked the 22nd victory by a golfer in his 20s through 41 2015 PGA Tour events, eclipsing the total from 2014 with nine tournaments left on the schedule. In other words, 2015 could soon become known as the best season ever for golfers under 30.

But this recent surge of young stars is not the first time the Tour has been overtaken by a youth movement. Looking at the historical data, the last era dominated by 20-somethings stretched from 1950s to the early 1980s and was headlined at first by the rivalry between the original “Big Three” – Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, and Arnold Palmer – and later by the emergence of Tom Watson and Seve Ballesteros. Nicklaus, Player, and Palmer combined for twelve major championship wins while in their twenties, Watson would add three more in the 1970s and Ballesteros won four between 1979 and 1984. Prior to 2015, the last season to feature as many wins by under-30 golfers was 1974 (23), when Johnny Miller led the Tour with eight wins and Tom Watson won his first professional tournament.

Starting in 1960, golfers in their 20s have won an average of 32% of PGA Tour tournaments played in any given year. The chart below shows how young players have fared relative to that average, and what’s immediately clear is that 2015 marks a new high-point for 20-somethings, narrowly eclipsing the Nicklaus-Player spike of the 1960s and the Watson-Bellesteros-led bump in the 1970s.

But what this graph also shows is the extreme lack of success by golfers in their 20s in the 1990s and 2000s. Despite the unprecedented dominance of Tiger Woods at a young age (46 victories in his 20s), this era consistently lagged behind the 1960s and 1970s in terms of winners under 30. As is clear from the chart below, when judging by age alone, the so-called Tiger Woods era was also dominated by players in their 40s, when vets like Vijay Singh, Steve Stricker, and Kenny Perry all won at least nine PGA Tour events after hitting the Big 4-0.

What truly sets this current youth movement apart, however, is how broadly the success has been shared. Just six years into the decade, fifty different golfers in their 20s have won PGA Tour events (an average of more than eight different winners per season). Only the 1980s saw more different golfers under 30 win events. That suggests that the recent success of young players is less about an elite handful of superstars rising to the top and more about the overall emergence of several highly-skilled young players. For example, in the 1960s, Nicklaus was responsible for 17% of wins by golfers under 30 while Woods won 33% of those events between 1996 and 2005. Meanwhile, since 2010, McIlroy has accounted for just 11% of those victories.

The surge in young success is even more striking when you look at the majors. Thirteen major championships over the last six seasons have been won by golfers in their 20s (54%). That marks the largest youth winning percentage since a combination of 20-year olds like Nicklaus, Player, and others won 43 percent of the majors contested in the 1960s.

And considering the sheer number of young players at the top of their games, it’s hard to imagine that percentage declining anytime soon. After all, ten of the top-25 players in the world are currently under 30, and others like Tony Finau, Justin Thomas, and Patrick Rodgers have already contended for PGA Tour wins as rookies. So while 2015 is the first season in more than 40 years that’s seen more than half of all Tour events won by golfers under 30, there’s no telling what 2016 will bring.

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