Which player has had the best Champions Tour season of all time?
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Lee Trevino once called the Champions Tour players “round bellies” to distinguish them from the “flat bellies” of the PGA Tour. Different bodies, different games. These days, however, many golfers keep themselves in good enough physical condition to compete with guys under half their age. Ray Floyd, Craig Stadler, Fred Funk and most recently 2021 PGA Champion Phil Mickelson have all won both tours in a single season.
It’s an impressive feat, of course, and yet staying in shape and finishing first in a few tournaments is not a measure of lasting domination.
Which brings me to a topic I was eager to explore: What has been the most dominant season of the Champions Tour? While grilling room debates on such issues can be a lot of fun, they tend to be based on opinions and perceptions. As usual, I wanted something more quantitative. Counting wins is easy, but it doesn’t distinguish major wins (with bigger and stronger fields and four rounds of competition as opposed to three standards) from other wins. And I didn’t want to ignore other top finishes.
Money is also not a good measuring tool, as the size of handbags changes over time. This led me to create a “Tour of Champions points system”, inspired by silver, world rankings and the FedEx Cup points systems, where the main winners receive 100 points, the second 60 points, the third 40 points and so on. Non-major events confer points that reflect the lower quality of the peloton, so that a winner can earn 70 points and other finishes receive proportionately fewer points. Then it was all about awarding points to players for all Champions Tour events and finding the player and season with the highest point total.
Of the top 10 seasons on the senior tour, seven have been recorded by members of the World Golf Hall of Fame, including Larry Nelson, Peter Thomson and Trevino. But only one player has appeared more than once: Hale Irwin. In 1997, he amassed 841.4 points in a season marked by nine wins (one major) and 15 top-five finishes, enough for third place in the standings. Second place goes to Bernhard Langer, who collected 850.1 points in 2017. He has seven wins this season, including three majors. He also finished 14 in the top five in a campaign that was unmistakably excellent but not the best ever.
This great honor goes to Irwin for a 1998 season in which he collected 914.4 points. He’s had seven wins (including two majors) and a total of 20 top-five finishes in 22 starts. Its other two finishes were T-13 and T-16. Lest you think Irwin beat on weak ground in 1998, his competition included Trevino, Nelson, Jack Nicklaus, Raymond Floyd, Gil Morgan, Gary Player, Isao Aoki, and David Graham. In 1998, Irwin scored 41.6 points per event, also a record if we exclude players who played a limited program. (In 1990 Nicklaus averaged 100 points per appearance, but he only played two Champions Tour events, both majors and won them both!)
In 1998, Irwin also set the Champions Tour record for the longest streak beating the field. A player is said to “beat the field” if his score is lower than the average field score for that round. Trevino had a streak of 48 consecutive laps beating the field in 1992. In 1998, Irwin improved that by just one lap.
So there you have it: because of his 1998 season, Irwin is our alpha. But he didn’t win that year on the PGA Tour.
Follow Broadie on Twitter @MarkBroadie.