What Marathoners and Golfers Have in Common (Unfortunately)

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Nat Ehrlich, a reader in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is a retired university professor whose main academic interests are human-performance psychology and statistics. In 1974, he spent an interesting year as the director of research at the Michigan Center for Forensic Psychiatry. In 2013, he conducted a research study, for Michigan State University, which demonstrated that “we elect our Presidents more on the basis of how they come across as people—most important, how honest they seem—rather than what ideology they espouse.”

Ehrlich took up golf in 1961, and he was the golf coach at the University of Michigan-Flint in 1971 and 1972. He’s a regular at Radrick Farms, the University of Michigan’s golf course and one of Pete Dye’s earliest designs (photo below). “My goal is to shoot my age,” he told me recently. “My best effort so far is age-plus-six: a 74 when I was sixty-eight, and a 78 last year, when I was seventy-two.”)


Recently, Ehrlich subjected golf and golfers to some penetrating retired-guy statistical analysis, with interesting results. He told me: “I looked up world-record holders in the 100 meters, the mile, and the marathon, by ten-year age groups, and found very similar curves for increase in time to run each event. Then I plotted a similar curve for golf, and came up with age-ranked par figures.” (See the chart below.) What those numbers in the bottom row mean, essentially, is that as we get older we need to adjust our expectations downward (or upward, depending on how you look at it)—probably true in everything we do.

Ehrlich par chart

Even though scores rise with age, enjoyment doesn’t have to fall. Slade, who is in his eighties, is one of the oldest members of the Sunday Morning Group, but he still walks and carries his bag:


We screw him and other high-handicappers by limiting to fourteen the number of strokes that anyone can receive—and no strokes on par 3s. But he still shows up, and thank goodness for that. The only S.M.G. guys who use carts are guys who really can’t get around our course on foot anymore—unlike these two, who don’t necessarily look old enough to have drivers’ licenses:


But they don’t play with us.