The Young Guns of the PGA Tour were locked and loaded to start the 2009 season.
Anthony Kim, Camillo Villegas, Adam Scott, Aaron Baddeley, the 20-somethings with wicked games, were poised to move to the top of the world rankings leaderboard and join Tiger and Phil in the chase for greatness.
Instead the 20-somethings were trumped by two 40-somethings, in an age-before-beauty contest in which Steve Stricker and Kenny Perry were the hands-down winners. Kim, Villegas, Scott, Baddeley all failed to win even a single event. Stricker, in the 42nd year of his life, won three times, banked $6,332,000 and moved to third in the Official World Golf Rankings. Perry, in the 49th year of his life, won two times, pocketed $4,400,400 and moved to 10th in the world rankings.
Tiger Woods won five times in 2009 (though no majors) and was voted Player of the Year by his peers again, even after his personal meltdown after the end of the season. Phil Mickelson had an up and down year interrupted by the breast cancer diagnoses of both his wife and mother. He finished off strongly, winning the Tour Championship and HSBC World Golf Championship event in China.
Woods and Mickelson, however, are the expected ones, great players in the prime of their professional careers. Who was expecting Stricker or Perry? Surely they had played well in recent seasons, but to have outperformed all the young guns so resoundingly, to have won five times between them and to continue to occupy exalted spaces in the top 10 in the world? At their age? It might have been a bit much to imagine.
As modest as both men are, their records speak for themselves. Stricker and Perry were competitive throughout the season and Perry was coming off another successful season in 2008. When the golf world continually looks for new blood, there's healthy blood still running through these old veins.
Call it the Vijay Singh effect. Singh is the most successful player in his 40s of all time, passing the legendary Sam Snead. Of Singh's 34 victories, he won 22 of them after the age of 40. Snead had 17 victories and Perry is now third on the 40s list with 11.
Singh is the prime example of players over 40 on the PGA Tour who have extended their prime. Fred Funk, Fred Couples, Corey Pavin, Woody Austin and Tommy Armour III have won tournaments in their 40s and have stayed competitive despite the onslaught of the 20-somethings from the American college golf prep schools. Ernie Els turned 40 last October and there's little doubt he'll win again.
You can give a lot of credit to better conditioning and modern equipment for leveling the age playing field, but certainly belief is a huge reason why players in their 40s don't feel they have to move aside for some youth movement. Singh and his compatriots need only look back to Jack Nicklaus winning the Masters at 46, at Hale Irwin winning his third U.S. Open at 44.
Do Singh and the other forty-something winners inspire every player over 40? "Absolutely," says Perry. "There's no doubt that Vijay having the success he has had tells me that as long as I'm healthy, I can compete out here. Age is just a number, not a barrier. He's proven that."
To get where he is now, the only barrier Stricker has had to overcome is himself, twice. In 1996, Stricker won two PGA Tour events and made the Presidents Cup team. That was the year that Tiger Woods turned pro and Stricker's accomplishments were overshadowed a bit by Woods' explosive debut. But Stricker's fellow pros were impressed. He was long and he had touch, two crucial elements to success on tour. And he had a solid relationship with his caddie-who happened to be his wife Nikki.
But he failed to build on that success. He changed equipment and fiddled with his swing, and then he changed caddies when Nikki delivered the couples' first child. It took him until 2001 to win again, and it was a big one, the WCG Accenture Match Play Championship. Again, he failed to build on that success, and went into a major slump, so bad that he lost his Tour card after the 2004 season by finishing 151st on the money list. The 2005 season was even worse. Playing mostly on sponsor exemptions, he finished 162nd. His swing was all over the place, and not even his velvet putting touch could save him. At that point he was the definition of Lee Trevino's adage. "There are two things that won't last long in this world," Trevino once said. "And that's dogs chasing cars and pros putting for pars."
Stricker, rooted solidly in his native Wisconsin, knew that the off-season of 2005-06 was critical, that he would have to find a solution to his swing problems. But he wasn't leaving home. There would be no condo in Orlando or Palm Springs where he could migrate and practice and play every day in shirt sleeves. He was staying home. Instead, he had two mobile homes put together at the back of the driving range at the Cherokee Country Club in Madison, a course owned by his father-in-law and swing coach, Dennis Tiziani. Walls were removed, mats fastened to the floor and huge buckets of yellow range balls were stored inside. Ben Hogan once said that he found his swing in the dirt. Stricker found his in a mobile home, hitting yellow range balls into the snow.
Television commentator and two-time U.S. Open champ Andy North, a fellow Wisconsonite who also calls Madison home, watched as Stricker finally figured things out.
"You know, sometimes with young players when they win early on, they think they have things figured out," said North. "He didn't quite know what he was doing. Then when things start to go bad, you lose confidence. He wasn't driving the ball well and when you lose confidence that's where it really manifests itself. When he lost his card, he spent the winter hitting balls. He found his swing on a mat in the middle of the winter in a trailer. That's the coolest thing, that he worked so hard and it paid off."
Playing off sponsor exemptions in 2006 he played well enough, though without winning, to earn the PGA Tour Comeback Player of the Year award and regain his exempt status. He won for the first time in six years in 2007 at The Barclays, one of the Tour's play-off events, and won the Comeback Player of the Year award a second straight time. Now, at 40, he was finally cooking, and in 2009 he came to a full, rolling boil with his three victories and his highly successful pairing with Tiger Woods in the Presidents Cup Matches.
"My confidence is obviously very good," said Stricker at the end of the year. "I had a great year, winning three times, being paired with Tiger and playing well with him and holding up my end of the deal at the Presidents Cup. It all adds to a player's confidence level. I'm very excited about this year."
So what did Stricker get out of those hundreds of hours and thousands of balls hit from the trailer?
"What was killing me before were my misses were pretty big," said Stricker. "Knock on wood, that's what I've been doing a lot better the last couple years. My misses have gotten to be a lot smaller. And you can play from smaller misses. It's those big misses that end up killing a round. My swing is a lot better than it used to be. And I think part of that is because I went to work on that myself and found out what I wanted to do on my own, and I asked my father-in-law for a little bit of help. So I have it pretty simplified in my mind. I continue to work on the same exact things that I did five years ago. I'm telling you, it's the same things."
From hitting balls from a trailer, Steve Stricker made himself competitive with Tiger Woods, who he now calls a friend. After winning the Northern Trust Open in February, Stricker jumped to No. 2 in the world rankings, ahead of Phil Mickelson and just behind Woods. Stricker's success means that he is more likely to be paired with Woods in tournaments. But he doesn't compare himself to him.
"I don't look at me competing against him out there," said Stricker. "I've gotten away from that, and that's why I think I'm playing a little bit better when I do play with him because I just don't try to compare to what he's doing. I just try to go about my own business, talk with him, have fun with him. That relaxes me, too. Being a friend to him and enjoying being out there with him has helped me play better with him."
If Stricker's success came out of a trailer in the winter, Perry's came from a member of the Bent Pine Club in Vero Beach, Florida. But first, a look at his career.
Like Stricker, Perry is a country boy, from Franklin, Kentucky. The beginning of his PGA Tour career was sponsored by local residents who he repaid in full. He's become a pillar of his community, owns a public golf course there, and donates time and money to local projects including a college scholarship fund.
When he qualified for the Tour in 1985, he wasn't a ballyhooed player and it took him a while to find his legs. He got his first PGA Tour win, and a substantial one, at Jack Nicklaus' Memorial Tournament in 1991 and won twice again in the 1990s.
But publicly, those wins took a back seat to a glaring loss, one in which he took an unhealthy amount of smug criticism. At the 1996 PGA Championship at Valhalla, outside of Louisville, Perry was the local favorite, the hometown boy that half of the enormous galleries seemed to be following on any given hole, and he gave them a show. Perry finished the final round atop the leaderboard but with several groups still to finish. Instead of going to the range to stay loose and sharp, he went to the CBS television booth to commiserate and from there watched Mark Brooks tie him to set up a play-off, which he lost.
That event, and that criticism, seemed to define Perry's career until he won again in 2001 and then had a breakout season in 2003 with three victories. It was the 2008 season, with three more victories, that really sent Perry, then 48 years old, soaring toward the top of the player rankings, and a lot of it had to do with a putter (a PING G2i Craz-E mallet style) that was handed to him by Paul Hargarten, a club member at Bent Pine, in the off-season before the start of the 2008 campaign.
"How can you explain that," said Perry. "A guy comes up and hands you a putter, says it's going to help you. He just really believed in his heart this putter's really going to help you. It had a grip on it that looked like it had been on there for 20 years. It was dry-rotted. It was awful. It was hilarious. I grabbed it and threw it into the trunk of my car. Then I was putting bad and I grabbed it and the next thing you know, I'm winning golf tournaments. I've won five times with that putter, played in the Ryder Cup with it."
He has a further explanation for his stellar play. "I think a lot of it is due to maturity," he says. "My kids are grown and gone now. My oldest is married, my son's caddying for me, my youngest is a senior at SMU. So it's just Sandy and me, my wife. I've had more time to focus on my golf when I'm at home. I've actually spent more time practicing and not chasing the kids around and kind of rededicated myself in the 2000s and it's paid off."
So late in his career, Perry started to set goals. It went beyond making the Tour, making cuts, winning tournaments. In 2008, when he won three times, his goal was to make the Ryder Cup team, with the competition being back at Valhalla, the scene of his infamous PGA loss. He went about it his way, too, enduring criticism for not playing in the U.S. or British Opens in 2008, venues that he did not think he would do well at and would not accumulate the valuable Ryder Cup points.
Then in 2009 he did it again, two more victories, a play-off loss in the Masters, a Presidents Cup spot, a tangible pounding of the Young Guns while also dealing with the illness and death of his mother.
"Kenny's going to do what he has to do to be successful," says North. "One thing about Kenny, he's still really, really strong. He's got an unorthodox swing but he's got real athletic strength so he can bomb it out there as far as the young guys. Like Steve, it's been late in his career but he's figured it out. And he's been a much better putter in his 40s than he was in his 20s and 30s, and that has a tremendous amount of impact on his success. So you combine wisdom, strength and a hot putter and you get wins. Doesn't matter that you're 49."
Perry will turn 50 in August and has already said he plans to play a few Champions Tour events. He'll get to mingle with some of his old buddies again, and will likely beat their brains out again. But he can still beat the brains out of the youngsters, too.
"Do I have enough fire and passion in me still to compete?" asks Perry, rhetorically. "I think I do. I mean I think I'm still good enough to compete with them, but do I want to, is the question. I've pretty much accomplished everything I could accomplish out here. It's been a great year. It's been a great run."
It doesn't look like either Stricker or Perry is about to end their great runs soon, though Perry does plan on cutting back. He doesn't have a major in his pocket (he lost a play-off at the 2009 Masters to Angel Cabrera; Stricker has yet to win one, too) but he's not driven by majors. More than anything he's driven to enjoy his life with the game being a part of it.
"I'm the type of person, I'm so competitive, if I get to playing bad, you'll see me play a lot of weeks," he said. "But if I'm playing pretty good, I'll probably just kind of stay back and just play a few here and there and pick and choose the better events that I think are better for me and my game."
With Perry going on 50 and Stricker going on 43, they've reached a comfortable place in their careers and lives. It's a place that the Young Guns hope to get to one day.
Jeff Williams is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.