News & Opinion

Tour veterans hold back hands of time

PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Jim Furyk already has come in second once this week, so I don’t think he’s going to be too ticked off by another runner-up finish.

My second-favorite thing about Furyk is that he holds himself to a high standard. My favorite thing, of course, is that he has a unique swing that he owns. That’s a plus, I believe.

Some media types who don’t really understand him perhaps figured he’d be pleased by coming close Sunday at the Players Championship, losing by a stroke to The Legend Who Is Rory McIlroy. The high standard to which Furyk holds himself is simple: winning.

Losing to McIlroy was no consolation for Furyk. “It still stings,” he said. “I’m a competitor. I want to win, and it pisses me off that I didn’t.”

The other thing that should have annoyed him was the preoccupation with his age. He joked how anyone who watched the telecast must think his first name is Forty-Eight-Year-Old, his middle name is Jim and his last name is Furyk. “That’s all I heard on TV the last two days,” Furyk said. “It made me laugh.”

What’s with the notion that PGA Tour players forget how to play golf when they get deep into their 40s, despite all examples to the contrary? Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson, Hale Irwin, Fred Couples, Vijay Singh, Steve Stricker, Sam Snead, Julius Boros. Tom Watson was one softer bounce from winning the British Open at Turnberry at age 59. Have you age-ists learned nothing? Or is your memory even worse than mine?

Furyk will turn 49 in May, but 49 hasn’t been old in golf in a long time. A whole generation of players on or near the senior circuit are reaping the benefits of Tiger Woods, who made hitting the fitness trailer and getting stronger almost mandatory after his dominant era began in1997. Woods raised the bar on what being buff is now many of the guys who tried to catch up to are in the best shapes of their lives (OK, maybe not you, John Daly) and staying competitive longer. Furyk proved at Sawgrass that on the right course, he is still capable of beating McIlroy, who averaged 320 yards off the tee last year, or any of the other young bombers.

Furyk inspired me to come up with a new set of rankings. There are no official Champions Tour world rankings, although there is an unofficial one for seniors, the Power Performance Rankings, based on senior tournament finishes.

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Phil Mickelson finally made it to No. 1 in a ranking: Gary Van Sickle’s Semi-Sunset Rankings.

I rank the best pros in the world who are 45 or older based on how they play on the regular tours, not in senior golf. I call them the Semi-Sunset Rankings. Furyk claims the No. 2 spot after his remarkable play at the Players.

1. Phil Mickelson (age: 48; Official World Golf Ranking: 21): The good news for Mickelson is that he finally made it to No. 1 in a world ranking! Lefty is a unanimous choice for No. 1. That’s hardly an upset since I’m the only voter. Still, it’ll look good on Mickelson’s resume if he should, say, apply to grad school at Brown. At age 47, he won a World Golf Championships title last year and won again last month at Pebble Beach, at 48. In fact, if he could’ve taken that impeccable final round at Pebble and subbed it for any other final round he’s ever played (some of them being all too peccable), he’d have won at least six U.S. Opens and a few more PGA Championships. Mickelson, who has 44 victories, set 50 victories as his goal. Reachable? I’m not counting him out.

2. Jim Furyk (age: 48; ranking: 57): The two gutsy shots Furyk played at No. 18 at Sawgrass rank with his greatest clutch finishes. He quietly placed sixth at Mayakoba last fall. The reasons for his improved play at 48 – yeah, that again – were being healthy for the first time in more than three years and switching to an arm-lock putting grip after getting tips from arm-lock putter Webb Simpson. Is this the start of Furyk The Sequel? Well, he is playing this week’s Valspar Championship, where he has won before (2010).

3. Lee Westwood (age: 45; ranking: 64): The Englishman has played sparingly in the past two years, but he won the Nedbank Challenge in South Africa in November, one of four top-20 finishes in his past six events. He also placed seventh at the Dubai Desert Classic in January. Westwood tied for second in the Masters as recently as 2016, the same year he was paired with eventual winner Dustin Johnson in Sunday’s final U.S. Open twosome at Oakmont (and as a witness, said Johnson should not have been penalized when his ball moved), where he slipped to T-32.

4. Vijay Singh (age: 56; ranking: 465): I’m awarding triple bonus points to Singh for his Honda Classic performance. He finished sixth, but he went off in Sunday’s final pairing with Wyndham Clark (a player, not a hotel chain) and was poised to be the oldest winner in PGA Tour history had he pulled it off. Though Honda has been his only good showing in five starts this year, it truly was memorable. His out-of-court settlement in his lawsuit against the PGA Tour did not count in this ranking (“In the news,” Nov. 21, 2018).

5. Stewart Cink (age: 45; ranking: 94): The former British Open champion has struggled in ’19, but he nearly won in 2018. He shot 66-67 on the weekend and tied for fourth at the PGA Championship; closed with a 62 and tied for second in Hartford; and was T-4 in Memphis. Cink still possesses a competitive short game, but his long game is on the fritz. He doesn’t rank among the top 180 in strokes gained off the tee or approaching the green.

6. Bernhard Langer (age: 61; ranking: 821): He’s the Sam Snead in the modern game, at least in terms of longevity and maybe not in homespun quips like the ol’ Slammer. Last year, Langer finished 24th at the British Open and was kind of in the hunt on the weekend and 38th at the Masters. Flukes? Hardly. He was 24th in the 2016 Masters, also, when he was still an impressionable young 58-year-old.

7. Davis Love III (age: 54; ranking: 458): He placed seventh at the Sony Open in Hawaii this year and has made four other cuts, although his finishes were all 57th or worse. His last victory was at age 51 in the Wyndham Championship. The young-looking Love makes any short list of players most likely to win a PGA Tour event in their 50s.

8. Padraig Harrington (age: 47; ranking: 208): Golf was more fun when Harrington was a contender. He was a delightful interview, though a challenging one because he talked at length and very rapidly. A three-time major champion, Harrington hasn’t done much on the PGA Tour lately, but he had three top 10s in Europe last year. He likes to tinker with his game, so you can’t rule out that he might tinker his way into contention again.

9. Toru Taniguchi (age: 51; ranking: 413): Taniguchi won the Japan PGA last year and had a pair of 12th-place finishes. Is the talent on the Japan Tour as good as that on the Web.com Tour? Nobody seems to know, and if they do, it’s not politically correct to answer yes or no. But the guy is 51, so a win is still impressive.

10. Steve Stricker (age: 52; ranking: 324): He’s still a Big Cheese, especially at the senior tour tournament that he hosts annually in Madison, Wis., and he’ll captain the 2020 U.S. Ryder Cup team at Whistling Straits, in Kohler, Wis. No wins on the big tour since 2013, but Stricker won $2.4 million combined in 2016 and ’17 and has made 12 cuts in 16 starts on the PGA Tour in the past 1½ seasons. He ranks No. 1 in the Power Performance Rankings for seniors.

May the sun never semi-set on these guys.

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