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Golf of Ages

We look at studies analyzing the longevity of pro golfers' careers, health benefits for amateur players, environmental impact of the greens as well as sexism on the links.
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Shakespeare has his Seven Ages of Man; Joe Baker has his Three Ages of Golf Pros. A researcher with the department of kinesiology and health science at Toronto's York University, Baker has been examining the records of top-ranked professional golfers and charting their decline over time. His work at least partially refutes previous research estimating the skills of athletes decline at a rate of 0.5 percent per year. Such a rapid falloff may hold true for aerobics-heavy activities such as swimming, but for golf, which requires a combination of mental and physical skills, the road to decrepitude is traveled at a much more leisurely pace.

In a 2005 paper, Baker looked at 17 elite professional golfers, focusing on their seasonal scoring average and the number of tournament rounds they played per year. He found their performance on average decreased only one-tenth of 1 percent from age 35 to 49, with their average scores increasing approximately one shot per round during that period. The rate of decline quickened from age 51 to 60, but not dramatically; the golfers gained another 1.5 shots per round during that decade, a performance decrease of .25 percent.

A 2007 follow-up looked at 96 pros and assessed their performance on a wider variety of skills, including driving distance (which, not surprisingly, saw the largest decline) and putting (which typically peaks at age 35). This research led him to create his three-stage template of a professional golfer's career: Stage One, ages 25-30, which features "a dramatic improvement in performance;" Stage Two, ages 30-42, where the golfers play fewer rounds but "essentially maintain their performance;" and Stage Three, ages 43-50, in which golfers play still fewer rounds and experience "a corresponding decline in performance." As the Bard might put it, all the world's a golf course, until it turns into one gigantic sand trap.

Slicing Your Way to Longevity
Play golf — live longer? That's the conclusion of a 2008 study from the Karolinska Institutet, a Stockholm medical university where doctors have a good excuse to head out on the links. Researchers examined health data of 300,000 Swedish golfers and calculated their death rate is 40 percent lower than for non-golfers of the same age, gender and socioeconomic status. That corresponds to a five-year increase in life expectancy, with even more added months for golfers with low handicaps.

There are reasons to doubt whether these findings apply to American golfers, however. Anders Ahlbom, the study's lead author, was quoted as saying "a round of golf means being outside for four or five hours, walking at a fast pace for six to seven kilometers, something which is known to be good for the health." Sitting in a golf cart and stepping out to take an occasional swing presumably does not have the same effect. Ahlbom also referred to the health-enhancing "positive social and psychological aspects to the game," which might come as a surprise to hyper-competitive Americans whose stress level rises every time they miss a putt.

Environmental Golf: An Oxymoron?
It is probably not a coincidence that the rising popularity of recreational golf — the number of amateur players in the U.S. grew from 11 million in 1970 to nearly 38 million in 2004 — coincided with the rise of the environmental movement. The environmentally attuned appreciate the pleasures of communing with nature, and playing golf is one way to spend quality time in the great outdoors.

It is sadly ironic then that the greens — and the rest of the world's 25,000 golf courses — are far from "green." As Kit Wheeler and John Nauright of Georgia Southern University note in a 2005 paper, courses tend to be built in beautiful natural environments such as the edge of a forest or the base of a mountain. But creating a course inevitably involves destroying part of the habitat that makes the area desirable to spend time in. Maintenance of the grounds requires immense amounts of water, as well as "the large-scale application of chemicals including fertilizers, insecticides, pesticides and fungicides."

The researchers report that golf association officials in North America and Europe are beginning to think in terms of sustainability (unlike their counterparts in Asia, where things seem to be growing worse). Ultimately, they write, the problem will have to be faced by the golfers themselves, who are of two minds on the issue. According to a 2001 survey of 5,000 players, 96 percent said seeing and hearing wildlife was one reason they enjoyed the game, but 49 percent said they preferred tees and greens to be "flawlessly green."

Hot men of the links
Television golf announcers tend to speak in hushed tones, but their quiet comments have a major impact on how we view the game and its players. In a series of studies, Andrew Billings of Clemson University has been examining the different ways the overwhelmingly male cadre of commentators describe men and women golfers. He has found major — and in many cases unexpected — differences.

Analyzing more than 200 hours of nationally televised coverage of events on the PGA and LPGA tours in 2003, he found "female golfers were more likely to be portrayed as succeeding because of their strength and intelligence, but were more likely to be described as failing because they lacked athletic ability." In contrast, "male golfers received more comments about their concentration and commitment."

This smacks of subtle sexism: Female success was usually attributed to innate ability, whereas men who won did so due to their superior mental/emotional makeup. But feminists will be pleasantly surprised by another finding: "Male golfers received proportionately more of the commentary about personalities and physical appearances." The announcers, perhaps fearful of making chauvinistic comments, were more likely to comment on the attractiveness of male golfers than females. But to be fair, Tiger does have a nice butt, doesn't he?

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