Keeping Score

Winning could grow old at Masters

AUGUSTA, Ga. – What seemed so absolutely, impossibly astonishing in 1986 now seems so … ordinary.

A 46-year-old man won the Masters Tournament.

Gee, what’s next? Girls playing men’s sports? An all-sports network? Imagine that. A TV figure becoming president? Ronald Reagan of “Death Valley Days” (and famously sponsored by 20 Mule Team Borax) beat Donald Trump by 3½ decades in that category. 

Of course, Jack Nicklaus winning the 1986 Masters at 46 is the gold standard by which all other Masters come up short. It was a magical moment at a magical place that came at a magical point for Nicklaus, who had been written off as a major competitor because of his supposedly advanced age and, OK, his increasingly disinterested play.

Phil Mickelson
© GOLFFILE/KEN MURRAY At 47, Phil Mickelson could turn back the years this week at Augusta National.

© GOLFFILE/KEN MURRAY
At 47, Phil Mickelson could turn back the years this week at Augusta National.

Nicklaus already had established himself as the game’s greatest player of all-time, but to come back for one last dramatic bow by shooting 30 on Sunday’s final nine – including a bogey at the par-3 12th, by the way – was the kind of far-fetched script that even the cheesiest Hollywood director would laugh off. And there’s something about finishing with 18 major championships that sounds so much better, so much more right, than finishing with 17.

In 2018, the question isn’t whether a player older than 46 will win a Masters someday and surpass the Nicklaus mark. The question is, why hasn’t it happened already? It’s a lot like why the scoring record of 63 inexplicably lasted so long in major-championship golf until Branden Grace posted 62 in last year’s British Open at Royal Birkdale. 

Augusta National is a young man’s course, yes, but past champions such as Vijay Singh, Bernhard Langer, Fred Couples and others keep redefining our concept of aging in golf.

In 1986, Jack’s Immaculate Perfection was before the full effect of the Senior Tour became apparent. Older players, with a second and often more lucrative career awaiting them after 50, kept themselves and their games in better shape because now they had a reason never to give up golf.

In 1986, it was long before a fitness craze hit the PGA Tour. Credit Tiger Woods for that when his long-distance display of power made Augusta National resemble a pitch-and-putt course in 1997 when he shot 18 under par and won by 12 strokes in his first Masters as a professional. Like Nicklaus, Woods routinely blew tee shots 30, 40, 50 yards or more past his competitors. Woods was ripped, muscle-wise, compared to his opponents, and that was before he fell totally in love with running and weightlifting in the mid-2000s (and possibly overdid it by 2007, but that’s another story).

The prodigious length of Woods sent most PGA Tour pros scrambling to the fitness van and the gym to try to close the gap.

We’ve seen older athletes enjoy so much success, especially in golf. Hale Irwin won a U.S Open, his third, at 45 in 1990, and he then proceeded to play some of the best golf of his life over the next two decades as he dominated the senior circuit and won a record 45 Champions Tour titles.

No offense to Stewart Cink, but Tom Watson, at 59, really should have won the 2009 British Open at Turnberry. Watson hit the perfect shot into the final green with a one-shot lead, but it ran out 3 feet too far and left him in an awkward spot behind the green, from which the man who once wrote the book “Getting Up and Down” couldn’t get it up and down. Cink beat a spent Watson in the ensuing four-hole playoff, and the Scottish fans filed out quietly, as if leaving a funeral.

Phil Mickelson won a World Golf Championships title last month at 47, and his play this year has him looking like a legitimate Masters contender, especially considering he has won this thing three times.

Why wouldn’t a 47-year-old or older win a Masters? It absolutely will happen, said Langer, 60, a two-time Masters champion who was a weekend contender in two of the past four Masters.

“Guys are much fitter nowadays than golfers have ever been,” Langer said Monday afternoon as he began preparations for his 35th Masters appearance. “Guys like Mickelson, Couples and a few others in the future are still long enough to tame this course or have a chance if their short games are good. There’s going to be more of them in the future because we’re learning to be real athletes. They all have physical trainers, mental coaches, they watch their diets, whatever it takes. And that will give them longevity.”

You could do worse than draft Langer for your Masters pool lineup. He has had nine top-10 finishes at Augusta National, the most recent being an eighth in 2014.

“You really have to think your way around this golf course,” he said. “That may be one of the reasons that still allows me at this age to be somewhat competitive because I’m hitting 2-hybrids, 3-irons and 4-irons where other guys are hitting 7-, 8- and 9-irons.”

The distance disadvantage finally might be catching up with Langer here, plus he’s still trying to get his putting back to where it was last year when he won seven senior events, including three majors, and his ball-striking had been off until his last outing. Langer would like to get into contention again this week, but if he truly believes that he still can win here, he isn’t letting on. Of course, the stoic German would be great at playing poker with his monotonal sentences and his non-smiling smile.

“It’s quite different for me now,” Langer said. “I was not that short in my younger days. I was not the longest, but I would hit a lot of medium and short irons into these greens. They are designed for that, and I can’t do that anymore. 

“I asked Jack Nicklaus during a practice round here a few years ago, ‘When you were on top of your game, what was the longest iron you ever hit into one of the par 4s here? He thought for a few seconds and said, ‘Eight-iron.’ That was the longest club. So he hit a lot of wedges and short irons. I’m hitting 3- and 4-irons now. That’s the difference. We all know you can’t stop the ball with a 3- or 4-iron like you can with an 8- or 9-iron.”

Our opinions of what is possible have evolved. Before Watson at Turnberry, there was a 58-year-old Nicklaus shooting a game closing 68 to finish sixth in the ’98 Masters. I watched him warm up on the range before that final round and heard fans gasp in amazement as he hit the flagstick with his first two wedge shots from about a hundred yards, then narrowly missed hitting it with his third.

Forty-six isn’t golf old anymore. Neither is 56. What Nicklaus did in ’86, becoming the oldest golfer to win a Masters, is a feat that surely will be surpassed, maybe even this week. Hello, Phil?

The rest of that Nicklaus victory – the eagle putt at 15, the near-ace at 16, the birdie putt at 17 – never will be forgotten. There was nothing ordinary about it at all.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle


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