Determining if there is a "peak" age for world champions
August 24, 2023 by Jesse Weisz in Analysis, Preview with 0 comments
A version of this article was initially published in 2021 and has been updated and expanded for 2023.
As we prepare for the 41st PDGA Professional Disc Golf World Championship next week, many storylines revolve around who will win. Will it all be knotted up after the 90th hole, like last year’s battle between Paul McBeth and Aaron Gossage? Will Kristin Tattar rout the field again? Will a new generation of players take it down? Will McBeth win his seventh World Championship — or at least finish top two for the 11th straight year? Will a veteran without a Major title pull a Gregg Barsby and shock us all?
This article will examine the ages at which past champions took down the most prestigious Major in our sport. Before reading any further, try to guess the average age of a world champion. How about their age when they first won a world championship?
Player ages in these graphs represent the age they turned at some point in the calendar year they won Worlds, before or after the tournament.
The first graph shows the MPO winner in each year, including multiple-year winners:
The second graph shows the FPO winner in each year, including multiple-year winners:
The third graph shows only first-time MPO winners:
The fourth graph shows only first-time FPO winners:
A few statistics:
- The oldest MPO winner was Ken Climo (38) in 2006.
- The oldest FPO winner was Beth Tanner (40) in 1996.
- The youngest MPO winner was Sam Ferrans (16) in 1984, but he turned 17 that same year, which is how age is tracked in this article due to not having exact birth dates for most of the pros.
- The youngest FPO winner was Paige Pierce (20) in 2011. Marie Jackson Elsner was also 20 when she won her first Worlds, but she was two months older than Pierce at the time of her victory.
- The average age for an MPO winner is 27.5 years.1
- The average age for an FPO winner is 27.9 years.2
- The average age for a first-time MPO winner is 27.3 years.3
- The average age for a first-time FPO winner is 27.1 years.4
The average age for winners in both divisions — along with first-time MPO and FPO winners — is between 27 and 28. Those ages seems to be in the heart of the prime for disc golfers. Players that will turn 27 in 2023 include Calvin Heimburg, Kevin Jones, Andrew Marwede, Ella Hansen, Anniken Steen, Rebecca Cox, Sai Ananda, and 2018 World Champion Paige Shue. Players that turn 28 in 2023 include James Proctor, Jessica Weese, and Natalie Ryan.
However, the last time a 27 year-old won Worlds in MPO was Cam Todd in 2001, the last 28 year-old winner was Ken Climo in 1996, the last 27 year-old FPO winner was Juliana Korver in 1998, and the last 28 year-old winner was Paige Pierce in 2019.
The median first-time winner for MPO players is 28, and the median first-time FPO player is 27. This shows that you are just as likely to win before the ages of 27/28 as after them.
Another way to think about it: one-time winners tended to win their Worlds later than multi-time winners’ captured their first title. That makes sense if you figure that multi-time winners like Ken Climo, Nate Doss, Paul McBeth, Ricky Wysocki, Val Jenkins, and Paige Pierce may have more natural talent, so they don’t have to wait until their peak (late 20s – early 30s) to win, whereas a one-time winner might. Other players would have likely won earlier in their careers had they started playing earlier, such as Barry Schultz, Juliana Korver, Des Reading, Catrina Allen, and Kristin Tattar.
There have been 40 MPO PDGA World Championships, and Ken Climo has won 12 of them. That could have distorted the average age, but even if we remove Climo from the data set, the average age from MPO World Champions is 27.21.
If we look at Elite and Major winners thus far in 2023, the average age for an MPO winner is 25, whereas the average age for an FPO winner is 31.3. This MPO season has felt like a changing of the guards, and with Gannon Buhr and Isaac Robinson recently taking down their first Majors, this could be a year where a young generational talent wins Worlds. For FPO, it has been a different story, with tricenerians Tattar, Pierce, Gannon, and Allen winning 12 of the 15 events.
What is the prime age in other sports?:
- As of July 2018, the average age for a Major winner in men’s golf is 32 years and 143 days. In fact, the winners for each of the four majors have an average age of 32.
- As of May 2018, the average age for a men’s tennis Grand Slam winner is 24 years and 350 days. (The average age must have gone up since then with the dominance of Djokovic and Nadal, winning 17 of the 21 grand slam titles since May 2018 while in their 30s).
- On average, NASCAR drivers perform the best when they are 39 years old.5
- As of November 2021, the average age of an NBA All-Star player and an MVP is 26.5 and 27.9, respectively.
- Similar statistics for women’s sports are unfortunately not readily available without primary data analysis.
My thanks to StatMando for their input on this piece. If you would like to learn more about the age trajectories of the top players in the history of disc golf, please check out this article I wrote a few years ago.
median = 27, mode = 23 ↩
median = 29, mode = 30 ↩
median = 28, mode = 31 ↩
median = 27.5, mode = 30 ↩