Pro golfers’ skills show aging is not a handicap

Professional golfers lose driving distance as they age, but maintain their putting prowess, a new study from York University has found.

This is good news not only for optimistic duffers heading into their golden years with golf club in hand, but to anyone who keeps active, says lead author Joe Baker (left), a professor of kinesiology and health science in York’s Faculty of Health.

Baker, and three co-authors from Queen’s University, examined official PGA Tour data for 96 professional golfers who had played on the tour for at least 12 years. The study, "Maintenance of Skilled Performance with Age: A Descriptive Examination of Professional Golfers" is published in the July issue of the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity.

"Golf is a sport where professional athletes can extend their careers significantly, so we were able to look at the maintenance of skilled performance throughout those long careers," said Baker. "We looked at data on scoring average, driving distance, driving accuracy, greens in regulation, putts per round and number of competitive rounds played. And we concluded that performance in golfing can be maintained to a much greater extent than performance in activities relying on biologically constrained abilities."

It comes as no surprise that people can play golf reasonably well as they get older, whereas their 100-metre dashes are sure to have suffered, says Baker. However, the golfing study made it possible to look at very specific acquired skills – putting, for example – that master golfers practise often. While there is consistent evidence that physical and cognitive capabilities decline with age, there has been contradictory evidence as to whether this is actually due to aging, says Baker, or if it’s more closely related to disuse.

Right: Canadian pro golfer Dave Barr in 2005 (AP photo)

Baker’s study found that the greatest declines in golf performance in the face of advancing age were in two categories: driving distance, and greens in regulation, which is the percentage of time a golfer hits greens on a par-5 hole in three strokes or less, a par-4 in two strokes or less and a par-3 hole in a single stroke. Driving distance declined from peak performance by 0.23 per cent annually until age 50 (data were corrected for overall tour performance, in order to examine relative performance). Even more dramatic, greens in regulation declined by 0.36 per cent annually. In contrast, overall scoring averages decreased by 0.14 per cent annually and the golfers’ performance in putts per round declined by 0.11 per cent a year. Driving accuracy actually improved a little over the same period, suggesting that golfers may be able to compensate somewhat for decreases in driving distance by improving accuracy of their drives.

"Many studies that look at reaction times, memory, muscular strength and flexibility show a downward spiral of functional ability with age, but this may not be an accurate picture of aging," says Baker. "What this golf study and certain other studies have shown is that cognitive, perceptual and motor skills are really resistant to decline, but you’ve got to stay involved."

Golf has a great deal to offer both physically and cognitively, especially if players walk the course rather than load a golf cart with beer, says Baker. "You can get your heart rate up walking the course, there’s a physical component to driving and a cognitive component to putting, and you have to read the course and plan out a strategy."

The results of this study of an elite sample of athletes suggest that even in the general populace, acquired cognitive skills can be maintained at good levels if the skills are practised often – an important finding, given that the number of North Americans over 65 is expected to double by 2026.

Baker’s next study, now in the planning stages, shifts the focus from the possible to the actual by looking at exercise motivation in active and inactive seniors.