The Great Morphing Athlete

Posted on May 12, 2006 by


Like a lot of us, I like to spend my free time (when the family let’s me!) watching sports. After baseball, I probably like to watch golf the most. While some find the sport a little slow and perhaps a little pretentious, I find it a sport which requires guile and tenacity.

That the typical golfer is better today than twenty years ago I would think is not open for discussion. The level of competitive balance within the PGA also appears to have improved over time. This is not just my opinion. Three professors, Sangit Chatterjee, Frederick Wiseman, and Robert Perez published a study (“Studying Improved Performance in Golf”) in the Journal of Applied Statistics which found that, “… (t)he results indicate that golfers are obtaining lower scores over time and that the variation of the scores has declined.”

The researchers focused on the yearly performances in the Masters. Analyzing the top 40 players in each Masters from its inception in 1934 through 2001, these writers found that the average score for these golfers has declined by roughly ten strokes since the mid 1930s. Additionally “the spread of the scores among the top forty players has decreased faster than the means have decreased. This signifies rapid improvement and increased competition throughout the history of the tournament.”

Chatterjee et. al. argue that the changes in the game — major improvement in performance and improved competitive balance — are due to changes in technology, an increased emphasis on instruction and education, an increasingly scientific attitude towards the game, and increases in the popularity of the sport. Why does popularity matter? Like our work, these authors build upon the work of Stephen J. Gould. Gould argued that as the population playing a sport increases the quality of competition increases. Specifically, differences between the truly great players in the game become smaller.

Unfortunately all is not good in the world of golf. The factors identified by Chatterjee et. al. lead to a more homogenous group of golfers. And not only homogenous in talent, homogenous in appearance also. While the Jim Furyks of the golfing world still exist, they appear to be a diminishing breed. They have been replaced by Butch Harmon clones with the right grips, the club on plane, and a finish in perfect position.

Gone are the Palmers, the Floyds, the Trevinos, and the flying elbow of Christy O’Conner. While I appreciate the increased level of competition on the PGA tour, I’m not sure I enjoy watching today’s players as much as I enjoyed the greats of the past. Basically I miss the originality; the uniqueness of past golfers.

Then again, maybe I'm just getting old.