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
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.
His victory in the Memorial came after making a 15-foot putt to save par on the 72nd hole. "You make a putt to win on the last hole, walk off the green, and there's Jack Nicklaus standing there waiting to shake your hand. I mean, that's like golfer utopia," says Bryant.
He had been far from utopia throughout his career. Surgeries on both elbows and a rotator cuff didn't help him any. Without success on the Tour, it was difficult to maintain the confidence and focus needed to make cuts and earn enough cash to stay exempt for the next year. He was constantly going back to the Tour's Qualifying School, playing mini-tour events to support his family, and generally despairing of a golf life that didn't seem marked for greatness.
But with the backing of his wife, Cathy, and brother Brad, a former PGA Tour player himself, Bart Bryant persevered. All the adversity he had endured had prepared him to win, even if he didn't know it.
"I had to make a living for a long time by winning mini-tour events, and I mean you got to win a lot of them to make a living," says Bryant. "I had been to the Q school so many times, faced the pressure of having to make a score the last day to get my card. You can't face more pressure than having to make a score at the Q school. Then I was finally healthy in 2004, put it together at Texas, had the lead going into the final round and closed the deal. So I think playing in 2005, winning those tournaments—I mean it sure wasn't easy, but I wasn't getting in my own way. I had the confidence to play my game and think it was good enough, and it was." The reward was $3.25 million for the year and exemptions into all the major tournaments in 2006.
"You know, sometimes it can be brutal out here," says Bryant. "If you have a chance to win, [and] you don't come through, you can be labeled a choker. I think there comes a point as you get a little older and a little more mature where you throw that out the window and say, 'I'm too old to worry about that anymore. It's time to put it on the line.'"
Wes Short Jr. decided to put it on the line in 1997, and he was starting from a considerably lower rung on the golf ladder than Bryant. Short was a lunch-pail pro in Austin, Texas, and for three years had been working at the Ben White Golf Center driving range, about as far removed from the PGA Tour as you can be while still being a professional player. He committed fully to playing professional golf in 1997, kicking around various small events in Texas, eventually graduating to mini-tours. He borrowed $5,000 from a bank, had a $20,000 limit on a credit card, and found a sponsor. He was 34 years old, downright elderly when it comes to launching a drive for the PGA Tour.
"I just didn't want to look back when I was 50 and regret not at least trying to play the PGA Tour," says Short. "[PGA Tour player] J.L. Lewis is a friend of mine and he encouraged me to give it a shot. I didn't really have anything to lose except some money, and I had a whole bunch to gain if I could make it."
So off he went to the mini-tours, playing well enough to make a little money and eventually qualifying for the Nationwide Tour. "The players were getting better, the courses were getting better and I was getting better," says Short. "I wasn't winning, but I was playing good enough to have some hope. If you have hope, you keep going."
In 2003, he made it through the PGA Tour Qualifying School, but before the 2004 season started he popped a disk in his lower back moving a box in his house. He could play only 12 events in 2004 and was forced back to the Q school, where he earned his card for the 2005 season. All along, his back remained tender and he nursed it with rehab work. "From what people were telling me, there was no way I was going to have surgery unless I couldn't stand up," says Short. "It gradually got better, but I was still hanging back when I swung. My coach, Chris DeKeratry, said, 'You got to trust it not to hurt. You're just hanging on. If you get hurt, you get hurt.'"
Short missed many cuts early in the season, then finished fourth in the John Deere Classic in July after holding the lead on Sunday. That tournament told him something—he could play with these guys. Then, in October, came the Michelin Championship at Las Vegas where a lot of players like Short were trying to keep their cards. As an alternate, Short needed the withdrawal of Arron Oberholser to get into the tournament.
On Sunday afternoon, in a playoff with Tour stalwart Jim Furyk, Short tapped in on the second extra hole for a par that gave him his first victory, at age 41. He was the fifth player to gain his first PGA Tour victory at Las Vegas—a group that includes Tiger Woods. "Well, I'm not pretending I'm going to have a career like Tiger, but I proved to myself what I set out to do," says Short.
With that, Short tapped his chest over his heart. "It's all here, you know. It's all here."
Unlike Short, players like Kenny Perry, 45, and Brad Faxon, 44, have enjoyed long, successful PGA Tour careers. Perry, victorious twice last season, at Bay Hill and Colonial, has won nine PGA Tour events, six of them since he turned 40. Faxon won the Buick Championship in Connecticut last year, his second victory since turning 40. Neither is surprised at his continuing success or particularly concerned about remaining competitive with the younger players.
"I'm probably on the downside of my PGA Tour career, but I can still play some," says Perry, a real down-home Kentuckian. "These younger players are great, no doubt about it. But am I intimidated about playing against them? No. I'm too old for that. And besides, I know I can win once in a while."
Faxon found himself against a young South African, 30-year-old Tjaart van der Walt, in a playoff at the Buick last August, and won with a birdie on the first hole. Pretty good for someone playing on a bad right knee that required surgery shortly after the tournament. Faxon has won eight times over his career, relying on a strong short game and a marvelous putting touch. With characteristic honesty, Faxon says: "You know, I haven't been a consistent winner out here, but I've been pretty successful. If you can putt, you will have a chance on those weeks you're hitting the ball well. It doesn't matter what age you are. I've maintained my short game pretty well. Doesn't seem like it's deteriorated with age any."
Like several veteran players, Faxon holds a charity golf tournament; the event, which takes place in his native Rhode Island, is co-hosted by fellow Tour player Billy Andrade. Last year, the charity tournament fell on the same days as the American qualifying tournament for the British Open. Faxon wasn't exempt into the Open, and couldn't play the American qualifier. But the golfer, who is devoutly faithful to the history and tradition of the game, didn't want to miss an Open at St Andrews, so he flew to Scotland to play in the 36-hole final qualifier. He made it and finished 23rd in the championship. In November, he was given the Payne Stewart Award for long-standing service to the game.
"This game has been really good to me, and here I am in my 40s still getting something out of it," says Faxon. "There's really no other sport where you can be at the top so long. I love it."
Another veteran who enjoyed a stellar 2005 season was Fred Funk, a former University of Maryland golf coach. Funk added his seventh and by far most prestigious Tour victory of his career when he won the Players Championship in March. He turned 49 in June, then suffered an upper rib cage injury in July that bothered him for the rest of the season. He still managed to end the year with a splash and a lot of cash, wearing a skirt and thumping the daylights out of Tiger Woods, Fred Couples and Annika Sorenstam in the Merrill Lynch Skins Game.
Funk has consistently been among the shortest of hitters on the PGA Tour, meaning he has a tough time competing in majors and on many courses where length is more important than accuracy. When he played in the Skins Game in November, Tiger Woods kidded Funk about his offer to wear a skirt if he was outdriven by Sorenstam. The LPGA standout outdrove Funk on the third hole, got a pink flowered skirt out of her golf bag and gave it to Funk, who played out the hole wearing it. It was all staged for television, of course, but it was memorable good fun.
"It was really a great year altogether, though the injury prevented me from playing the way I wanted to in the summer and fall and that was pretty frustrating," says Funk. "With the way they are lengthening golf courses out here, it's getting more difficult for me to compete. There are so many that are just bomber friendly where players can hit it as far as they like and not get penalized. Augusta has already gotten too long for me. My game is about keeping it in play, hitting greens and making some putts. If I make a lot of them one week, I can win. That's what happened at the Players."
Funk has some decisions to make this year that the other winners in their 40s don't. He will turn 50 in June, making him eligible for the Champions Tour. Early in 2006, he was looking at playing the U.S. Senior Open as his debut on the Champions Tour, but didn't want to commit himself past that. He would love to make the Ryder Cup team, which requires accumulating enough points in PGA Tour events. Of course, the Champions Tour might be easier pickings for him, but he's not ready to concede that he can't play with the youngsters anymore.
He made the Presidents Cup team last September and captain Jack Nicklaus asked him which tour he planned to play.
"I said, 'I don't know what I'm going to do,'" said Funk.
"He said, 'You'll know when you're not competitive—whatever goals you set out are not easily attained or you're not making them—[and then] you'll move over. But there's no reason to jump over [now].'"
It wasn't so long ago that players in their 40s were hanging on so that they could be competitive in their 50s playing with the seniors. But there's no hurry anymore. Middle age never looked so good to a professional golfer, nor was it ever so lucrative. Therefore, staying in shape is the mantra of the day.
Or maybe not.
"Yeah, well, I ought to get myself in better shape," says Calcavecchia. "I actually used to run some. But it isn't going to happen. I'll hit balls, have a couple of pops and see how it goes."
Jeff Williams is the golf columnist for Cigar Aficionado.
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