What Are My Chances of Making the Champions Tour (Or at Least Hitting the Golf Ball Really Far)?

Despite the fact that I am not very good at golf, my secret fantasy is to someday play on the Champions Tour, the professional golf tour for fifty-somethings. As I approach my 44th birthday, I realize that it is time to get serious in this endeavor.

The right way to spend my time if I really wanted to make the Tour, I suppose, would be to practice more. My friend Anders Ericsson popularized the magic number of 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert. Depending on exactly what you count as practice, by my rough calculations I have logged about 5,000 hours of golf practice over the course of my life. Given how mediocre I am after the first 5,000 hours, however, I’m not so optimistic that the next 5,000 hours will lead me anywhere good.

So instead, I spent some time today figuring out how just how much I will need to improve. The best PGA tour pros tend not to have regular handicaps, but are said to be the equivalent of Plus 8 on the handicap scale, i.e. eight strokes better than a scratch golfer. I claim to be a six handicap. That means that, to a first approximation, if I played 18 holes today against the best players in the world, I should lose by 14 strokes.

The probability that I will improve by 14 strokes in the next six years is easy to estimate: zero.

Fortunately, my goal isn’t to be the best golfer in the world, just to be the worst golfer on the Champions Tour. Surely, that can’t be so hard, can it?

So I set out to measure just how much worse that guy is than the world’s very best golfers. A direct comparison is hard to make because the bottom feeders on the Champions Tour rarely play against the Tiger Woodses of the world. The stars of the Champions Tour do, however, play an occasional PGA Tour event. I was able to find 19 players who competed on both tours in 2010. On average, these players had a stroke average of 70.54 when playing on the Champions Tour, compared to an average of 71.77 when they played PGA Tour events. This suggests that the typical Champions Tour course plays a little more than one stroke easier than the typical PGA Tour course.

The top players on the PGA Tour post average scores of a little below 70 strokes per round, meaning that the upper echelon of senior golfers are about two strokes worse per round than the best players in the world. The low performers on the Champions Tour score around 73 on Champions Tour courses, or about two-and-a-half strokes worse than the top senior golfers. If the world’s best golfers are Plus 8 handicappers, then that means the “bad” golfers on the senior tour are roughly Plus 3 or Plus 4.

That’s “only” nine or ten strokes a round better than me. Surely I can close that gap! If I can squeeze merely one stroke of improvement out of each incremental 500 hours of practice, then by the time I hit 10,000 hours, I will be a Plus 4.

With that goal in mind, I recently started taking golf lessons for the first time since I was 13 years old. One reason I chose my new golf coach, Pat Goss, is that he was an undergraduate economics major at Northwestern. I thought maybe he would understand the way I think.

On our first meeting, Pat first told me I swing like a character out of Caddyshack, and then asked me what my goals were in golf.

I responded to his question with 100 percent honesty: “I want to play on the Champions Tour. But if you decide I’ll never be that good, then I have a very different objective. I don’t care the slightest bit about what my handicap ends up being in that case. All that matters to me then is being able to hit the ball as far as possible, even if I can’t break 100.”

I guess he’s not used to getting an honest answer to this question, because he was so overcome with laughter he practically fell to the ground.

The good news is that six lessons later we are still devoting time to perfecting my short game, suggesting he thinks I can achieve my dream of making the tour.

Or maybe he’s just maximizing revenue. After all, he is an economist by training.

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  1. Tom McGee says:

    As I turned 50, I tried to move from 2 to scratch for 4 years and ended up a 6. Invested much time and money. The pressure of improving just made me worse. I hope story ends better. I’m a 4.5 now, playing 9 hickory shafted clubs and having much more fun!!! Blessings!

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    • Kevin Potter says:

      My cousins on the PGA tour. I told him I will catch him on the champions tour lol. I just started playing and I am 28… What are my odds. I have the “gene”.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0
  2. noto says:

    Perhaps qualifying for the U.S. Mid-Amateur could be an intermediate goal before age 50. The winner gets an invitation to the Masters.

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  3. KenC says:

    I think your analysis is pretty close. I calculated a bunch of years ago what I thought it would take to play the Champions Tour, and it came out to a Plus 2, then again, I realized that the limited fields, made it difficult to impossible to qualify. If you can get yourself to a Plus 2, you’re better off entering US Open qualifying and trying to make a US Open, rather than trying to play the Champions Tour.

    And, your instructor is correct. Work on your short game and putting. I think that’s where the extra 5000 hours make the difference between the pros and the strong amateurs.

    I would highly recommend reading the Physics of Golf by Ted Jorgensen, a physicist. He may help you gain a few yards. The other book I recommend is an oldie, the Search for the Perfect Swing by Cochran and Stobbs.

    Lastly, if you like videos, I highly recommend the movies that Bobby Jones did on the swing. Borders might have them very cheap! Sometimes they appear on TCM, Turner Classic Movies.

    Honestly, everything I’ve learned about the golf swing have come from those two books and that series of videos. Nothing has changed, other than yardages. The biomechanics are the same. Your swing if it’s the Danny Noonan swing is a classic from the polyester-era. A reverse-C. It’s fine, but not built for maximal yardage.

    Strangely, a decade ago when I was looking to get out of consulting, I applied for a job with Golf Magazine, as their instructional editor. They interviewed me because they were intrigued by my economics background. I didn’t get the job, but I really didn’t expect to, seeing as I had never taken a lesson in my life and had savaged some of the methods being taught by their current experts! Good luck.

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  4. Jonathan says:

    You don’t mention that the scores the top pros are shooting are with every pin tucked three paces from the edge over a bunker with the greens stimping about 11-12 Most handicaps are established with the pins in the center of greens rolling about 8 or 9. I caddied for a friend of mine in the Mid-Am one year. The kid that beat him birdied 8,9, and 10 in the second round of the US Open at Pebble Beach last year. I’m an 8 handicap.

    I’m sticking to engineering, and I advise you to stick to economics.

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  5. VB in NV says:

    You forgot to factor in course difficulty…the PGA generally toughens courses for its events (and both Senior and LPGA courses are usually, but not always, not toughened).

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  6. GPO says:

    I do agree that short game practice is quite important. That is the part of the game were most of us leak strokes. If you are a 6 you should not need a short game teacher. You just need reps. One suggestion, never practice a putt over 15 feet. You just don’t make enough of them to matter that much. I suggest doing the old ladder approach. Putt from 3 feet until you make 10 in a row then move to 6 feet and then 9 feet.

    Most importantly though it isn’t soley about hours is more about how deep you practice. If you spend 2 hours practicing where it is more akin to screwing around that isn’t even close to 20 minutes of deep serious practice. So if you are not serious when practicing then leave and come back.

    Go read The Talent Code.

    Lastly get your body in tip top shape. You won’t gain the extra yards if you are not in shape. Work the core.

    And play every tournament you can.

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    • Jack says:

      Not true. The long putts are actually MORE important than the short putts because the long putts lead to three putts because if you can’t get your long put inside 3 feet you have a good chance of missing them. Remember, a PGA tour pro 3 putts about once every 100 holes! Luke Donald once went 400 holes without a 3 putt. Most scratch players can’t go 30 holes without a 3 putt.

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  7. DaveyNC says:

    OK, first, with a 6 handicap, you are already in the 99th percentile of golfers.
    Second, it’s not just 10,000 hours of practice, it’s 10,000 hours of purposeful practice. Not hitting a bucket of balls but hitting a bucket of balls to the left of the 135 yard marker and within 10 feet. Or to the right. Point is, have a specific purpose with each shot.

    Do that and I think you make it. Now, as to how your economics career might suffer…..

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  8. wayne says:

    Statistics just dont work in golf, what you think should be a plus 3/4 to make it to the champions tour is really a plus six in normal life, course set up, the pressure of actually playing for a living, the logistics of it all and then if you can handle that there might be 500 people just watching you put that 4 footer down a 12 stimped green, which is actually running close to 15 on the stimp, down the hill you are putting on! I am a 3 handicapp and i have played with Ross Fisher who has been number 23 in the world and to be honest he was so much better than me it was stupid, he shot 1 under on a course he had never played before ! This is something a lot of people forget playing your home course all the time is one thing, turning up at a venue you have no clue about and shooting sub par rounds is just a different level entirely. Best of Luck because you will need it……if you make it though let me know how,…i am 40 soon, maybe i still have a chance!!!! ;)

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    • Sparegolfer says:

      Your all wrong about handicaps. Remember, hanicaps are all based on the players POTENTIAL! So if you go out and play your absolute best round you can play, that would be your handicap. So if I go play my best round I would match my handicap which is scratch, but I don’t do that all the time, but I am capable of it. That is what a handicap number is based on. It also levels the playing field for all golfers so I could go out and play with a 14 handicap and we would be equals. I giving him 14 shots during the round. Jonathan, you were way off on your statement that handicaps are all established with pins in the middle of the green.

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