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The Golden Golfers

PGA professionals over 40 were once judged over the hill, but last year eight different players won 13 times on the tour
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Kurt Russell, May/June 2006

When Hale Irwin won his third U.S. Open at age 45, when Jack Nicklaus won his final Masters at age 46, when Ray Floyd won Doral at age 49, they made news. Surely, it was because the doggedly determined Irwin, the legendary Nicklaus and the formidable Floyd were putting exclamation points on their careers. The media noted that these players, for all their accomplishments, were in their 40s, well past the prime of athletes in highly physical sports like baseketball and football, and certainly on the borderline of competitiveness in golf. • Now 40, instead of being an age barrier, is just a bad nine-hole score. Players are winning, even excelling, into their 40s. Vijay Singh turned 40 in 2003 and has never played better, winning nine tournaments and PGA Tour Player of theYear honors in 2004. It didn't surprise anyone that Singh reached the top of his sport in his 40s, because his game had been dramatically improving since his 30s. Craig Stadler, the former Masters champion, won the B.C. Open in 2003 at age 50. Peter Jacobsen, the master at imitating Stadler, won the 2004 Greater Hartford Open at age 49. Prime time hasn't expired on the biological clock of these accomplished players. But who, in the name of Methuselah, is Wes Short Jr.? Where did Bart Bryant come from? What was Fred Funk doing becoming a star?

During the 2005 PGA Tour season, eight players in their 40s won tournaments. Singh, Short, Bryant, Funk, Olin Browne, Brad Faxon, Mark Calcavecchia and Kenny Perry showed a bunch of 20- and 30-year-olds that they still had game, and plenty of it. The 40-and-over crowd won 13 of 48 official PGA Tour events, with Funk taking the prestigious Players Championship and Bryant capturing the season-ending Tour Championship. Singh won four times, Perry and Bryant each twice, and Wes Short—Wes Short, for Pete's sake!—won his first PGA Tour event at the age of 41.

There is a simple explanation. The 40-year-olds on the PGA Tour today are better than they were in the last generation. Much more is at stake for players now—the hundreds of millions in purse money, millions more in endorsement income, and millions still to be made in appearances. And with the Champions Tour providing an annuity at age 50, it's all the more reason to keep the body in shape, the mind sharp and the swing in tune. Ching ching sounds just as sweet at 45 as it does at 25.

When Mark Calcavecchia attended the British Open champions dinner at St Andrews last July, he had a revelation. Calcavecchia won the Open Championship in 1989 in a playoff with Greg Norman and Wayne Grady. His name was on the Claret Jug, and thus he was part of history. But at St Andrews, at the age of 45, Calcavecchia hadn't won an event in four years and wasn't so comfortable as to think his next victory was around the corner.

"I looked around at all the British Open champions and kind of realized I don't suck as bad as I think I do most of the time, if I'm sitting there with those guys," Calcavecchia says. "We all have our ups and downs. When you can't hit a wedge within 30 feet of the hole, you think you are just pitiful. Other times you think you are pretty good. That's just the nature of the game."

Calcavecchia recounted this episode as he stood outside the scoring trailer at the Mercedes Championships this past January, the warm Maui sun glinting off his head with his ever-receding hairline. The only way that Calcavecchia could have made it to the PGA Tour's season-opening event on the Plantation Course at Kapalua, was by winning. Not two months after the champions dinner at St Andrews, Calcavecchia was a champion again. He won the Bell Canadian Open at 45, becoming the oldest titleholder in the event's 101-year history.

"I'm not as streaky good as I used to be. That's just because I'm in worse shape; I don't feel as good as many days as I should," says Calcavecchia, the man who introduced "power lip" and "snap slice" to the golfer's argot. "When I'm not hurting, when my back feels decent every once in a while, it's like Freddy [Couples]: we can be pretty good. Feeling good that you can swing at it the way you want to. In Canada I felt great. I can play with anybody when I'm feeling good and playing good."

That pretty much sums it up for all the 40-plus players on the Tour. Singh is a physical wonder, considering that probably no player in history has practiced or played more. With a gym at his Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, estate and a personal strength and conditioning coach, Singh is as well tuned as any player. For other 40-year-olds, the road may be a little bumpier, the knees and shoulders more achy, the back twinging more frequently. Nonetheless, when the swing is on plane and the putter on track, the 40-year-olds proved they can still compete with their younger rivals.

Consider Bart Bryant, 43, who, frankly, no one did until 2004 when, at age 41, he won the Valero Texas Open. The tournament isn't all that big a deal these days: just an end-of-the-season paycheck for players trying to make the top 125 on the money list to get their exemptions for the next season. That's what Bryant was trying to do in 2004 when he jumped up and won the thing.

Fueled with confidence, an uncommonly large bank account and a two-year exemption to Tour events, Bryant followed up that surprising victory with two real eye-catchers in 2005. He shot four rounds in the 60s to beat Fred Couples by a stroke in the Memorial Tournament in June. In the season-ending Tour Championship he opened with an 8-under-par 62 and blew away the field, finishing six strokes ahead of runner-up Tiger Woods.

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