Smithson: Statistics tell when our best years have passed us by

The one thing sports does well—depressingly so—is reveal the moment in time when an athlete’s best years have passed on by.

Like many people, I spent a fair portion of the past weekend following Another Major Golf Tournament That Tiger Didn’t Win (known more widely as the 2013 Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Georgia).

It occurred to me that one thing sports does well—depressingly so—is reveal the moment in time when an athlete’s best years have passed on by.

Eldrick “Tiger” Woods’ story is well enough known that I won’t rehash it here. It has been punctuated by moments of glory, sorrow, and embarrassment.

He may be the world’s most watched and most intriguing athlete of the last 20 years. Without a doubt, seeing his Nike golf ball drop into the cup on the 16th hole at Augusta in 2005—after the “swoosh” paused for the cameras—is one of the greatest sports recollections of my own life.

It may be accurate to say, though, that the primary aspect of ongoing interest in all things Woodsian is whether he will become, incontrovertibly, the greatest golfer of all time. To do that, he must eclipse the record of 18 major tournament wins held by Jack Nicklaus.

And, judging by his recent record (in the four majors, at least), that seems less and less likely. Tiger’s major total stands at 14. His last win at the Masters was in 2005, at the British Open in 2006, at the PGAChampionship in 2007 and at the U.S. Open in 2008.

In his best five-year span, Woods won six majors.  He’s presently closing in on five years without winning any.

Surely Nicklaus (without a doubt the most self-aware man in golf) would say that the longer it’s been since your last major win, the less likely it is that you’ll win another. There may be a natural law of the universe buried in there somewhere, but I’m not sure what it is.

Woods is presently within a club-length of his 40th birthday and history tends to show that the older an athlete gets, the more likely it is his or her best years are in the past. Well, except for short-cut-takers like Lance Armstrong, Mark McGuire and Ben Johnson that is.

Yes, yes Nicklaus won the Masters in 1986 when he was 46.  But, how many did he win in the five years prior to, and after, 1986?  None.

The thing about the major tournaments in golf is that not many guys have won very many. Nicklaus and Woods and fellow American Walter Hagen are the only men who have won 10 or more (another 10 golfers have won five or more).

No other active, full-time professional golfer in the world today has won five majors (Phil Mickelson is the closest, at four). So, in order to eclipse Nicklaus, Woods’ next five years or so needs to be better than Mickelson’s entire career to date.

One of the beauties of sports is how statistics let us see and measure and compare and, to some extent, re-live an athlete’s accomplishments.  One of the harshest aspects of sports is how statistics isolate the moment when an athlete’s success headed, inexorably, downhill.

The severe reality is that, on paper at least, the moment of an athlete’s final victory is coincidentally the moment at which his or her long decline begins.

But, that’s something that is typically only visible in hindsight—perhaps Nicklaus knew, on a Sunday afternoon in 1986, that he had just won a major for the final time but I wouldn’t think that’s a common state of awareness.

If it’s not bad enough to have your every move—both athletic and personal—scrutinized on a daily basis, athletes also endure the fact that their statistics reveal the stark truth of their career achievements and failings. For instance, Nicklaus won 18 major titles but he also finished either second or third in a major tournament on 28 other occasions.

I don’t know if that cements Nicklaus’ status as the greatest golfer ever, or exposes him as having had a hard time closing out a victory (nor do I know if it’s a statistic he celebrates or rues).

I do know that most of us living and working in the “real world” should be thankful we don’t have the albatross of published career statistics.

Will Tiger Woods ever win another major tournament? I expect so. Will he eclipse Nicklaus’ record of 18 major wins? I’m thinking not.

Will he blow by Nicklaus’ record like it once seemed he would and set unassailable, Gretzky-ish marks?

Not a chance, unless he starts hanging out with Lance Armstrong real soon.