Age, elite performance in sport and the longevity of Tiger Woods

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“The longevity of Woods’ career is not just a story of him beating personal and physical issues, it is also a story of science, and the understanding of the physiological, psychological, social and medical principles of golf.”  

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The longevity of golfers and their continued ‘elite’ level performance is largely unparalleled in sport. The recent Ryder Cup in France is testament to this. There are very few high level sports events where the average age of the players is in their mid 30s, and where 4 are in their 40s (with one close to 50). 

However, what is even more remarkable about this Ryder Cup is the recent recovery and performance of Tiger Woods. Not only is this a personal triumph after his very public fall from grace, but also a triumph over the significant back and leg injury problems (and multiple surgeries) he has faced in recent years. This is a truly remarkable return from one of the greatest players of all time who was ranked 1,199th in the world just 1 year ago. 

Personal controversy aside, Woods’ re-emergence as a force in world golf is testament to the science and understanding of the game, as well as growing research evidence within the sport. With millions of dollars being invested at all levels of the game, the role and understanding of golf as a sport for all levels of participant, across all ages, is clear. It is one of the few sports where age (and also recovery from injury) appear to be no barrier to participation, nor elite performance (as Tom Watson has proved, almost winning the Open in 2009 aged 59). For any player to make a comeback after undergoing 4 back operations in 2 years, spinal fusion, and also treatment for drug addiction - is remarkable. The fact that he returned and then in 2018 carded his best final round at The Open, followed by his first win in a Tour event since 2013 is even more extraordinary.

The element of science and research on sports performance is uncompromising and there is a considerable (and growing) amount of work around our understanding of the science of golf performance. Not just from the angle of equipment engineering, technology and performance, but also from the perspective of psychology, motor skill development, skill learning, and also (more importantly in the 21st century) health and wellbeing. Recent work and reviews undertaken by the Golf and Health project have highlighted that, as a form of physical activity, golf offers an exceptional chance to engage physically, socially and mentally. It is not just a game for global megastars, but one for everyone.

So, is Tiger Woods’ return simply a case of a super-elite performer battling against the odds to return to the top of their sport at the age of 42? Or is it the realisation that whilst we fete the ability of younger and younger performers to excel, we forget that sport can be a lifelong pursuit (at any level). The longevity of Woods’ career is not just a story of him beating personal and physical issues, it is also a story of science, and the understanding of the physiological, psychological, social and medical principles of golf. Ultimately it is a story of sporting longevity through science and medicine. Tiger Woods is a global sporting megastar, his presence at events has drawn huge crowds to watch him in action. He is a man who has come back from (to some extent self-inflicted) adversity, major injury and loss of form. How much is that, to us, a more acceptable metaphor for life than his original success?

The truth now will be in the forthcoming years and the test of whether Tiger will become the greatest Major winner of all time – beating the great Jack Nicklaus. But in an age of super-elite performers, Tiger’s comeback is remarkable in itself. With Ryder Cup colleagues like Phil Mickelson still competing at the top level at 48, the question is whether the world will be lucky enough to see Tiger continue to play for another 6 years? His longevity is now in the hands of his support team of medics and physios, and the science of long term sports performance.

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