Old Guard Fades New Generation Steps Up

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AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Raymond Floyd intends to keep playing the Masters as long as his health holds out.
 
On Wednesday, it looked like the end was near. Every couple of shots on the practice range, Floyd bent over to touch his toes or stretch to one side, propping himself up on whatever iron he happened to be using.
 
Geoff Ogilvy
Australian Geoff Ogilvy is making his Masters debut this week.
'I've got a bit of a muscle pull in my rib cage,' Floyd said, shuffling off to the champions locker room after the par-3 contest. 'I'm on my way to an appointment right now to get it worked on.'
 
Floyd is part of the over-60 group that will be on the course this week, taking advantage of a supposedly lifetime pass that winners get along with their green jacket. But their numbers are dwindling -- down to a threesome, in fact.
 
The next generation has taken over.
 
Sixteen players will make their Masters debut on Thursday, and another 16 have less than three years experience at Augusta National. Combined, these johnny-come-latelies account for more than a third of the 90-player field -- undeniable signs of a youth movement at the venerable ol' course.
 
'It's time for us to pull over in the slow lane,' quipped Ben Crenshaw, a two-time winner who knows his days are numbered at the age of 54. 'If we don't pull over, they're going to run us over. I've already been run over many times.'
 
Three-time Masters champion Gary Player is doggedly hanging on at 70, a physical freak of nature but the oldest player in the field, far beyond his days as a competitive force at Augusta National.
 
Sixty-seven-year-old Charles Coody brought along his clubs for another 36 holes, but this is it. After playing the par-3 contest with two grandchildren tagging along as caddies, the 1971 Masters champion revealed that he's playing the real tournament for the final time.
 
Then there's Floyd, still painfully swinging away at 63 even though he knows his chances of making the cut on the super-sized course are virtually nil -- especially with that twinge in his side.
 
'I continue to play because of the tradition,' said Floyd, the '76 champion. 'I'm not here to be competitive. I'm here to be part of the history. I would never go over and play a regular Tour event because I'm not competitive.'
 
While Augusta National wallows in its history, the club has clearly taken aim at one of its most venerable traditions -- the past champion.
 
A few years ago, club chairman Hootie Johnson sent out those infamous letters to three former winners (Billy Casper, Doug Ford, Gay Brewer) asking them in not-so-tactful terms to give up their automatic spots in the field.
 
Even though Johnson hasn't used that tactic again, the message is clear: It's time to step aside if you're not showing at least a semblance of being competitive.
 
Arnold Palmer got the hint, playing for the final time in 2004 as he closed in on his 75th birthday. Jack Nicklaus was 65 when he followed suit after last year's Masters, saying he didn't want to play the tournament if he was only being viewed as a monument. This is the first time since 1954 that neither Palmer nor Nicklaus will play in the Masters.
 
Barely noticed, 69-year-old Tommy Aaron decided not to play after putting up a 17-over score in the first two rounds last year -- and that was before the course was lengthened to a staggering 7,445 yards.
 
After sitting out three years, Casper returned in 2005 for a farewell appearance. Seventy-three and barely able to make it around the course, he quit after shooting 106 in the opening round, which would have been the highest score in Masters history if he had bothered to turn in his scorecard.
 
But all of those guys were in their 60s and 70s.
 
With the ever-growing course -- Augusta National has expanded by 460 yards over the last five years in response to bulked-up players, juiced-up balls and high-tech equipment -- look for aging players to step aside a lot quicker than they did before.
 
'It's crossed my mind,' said Crenshaw, who hasn't made the cut since 1997. 'It won't be too much longer before I'm done.'
 
There are only four 50-something golfers in the field, Crenshaw among them. By comparison, 22 players are 30 or younger, driving down the average age to 37.3 for this year's field.
 
So, in this era of youth being served, will someone ever be able to pull off another 1986? Let's ask Nicklaus, who was 46 when he became the oldest winner in Masters history two decades ago.
 
'He'd better be pretty long to start with,' said Nicklaus, who put Tom Lehman and Fred Couples in that group.
 
The course conditions could push more people in the mix, especially veterans such as Bernhard Langer who know the place like their own backyard -- even with all the changes.
 
'As I understand it, the golf course is relatively fast,' Nicklaus said. 'If the golf course is relatively fast, it brings a lot more people into the game.'
 
Arron Oberholser, who will be making his Masters debut at 31, knows the value of experience at Augusta National. Pure power isn't enough.
 
'I have no expectations,' he said. 'I just want to have a good time and learn the golf course, because this won't be my only one.'
 
In years to come, as golfers such as Oberholser becomes regulars, there aren't likely to be enough old-timers to put together fan-favorite pairings such as Nicklaus-Palmer-Player or Coody-Casper-Brewer. Even if there were, Augusta National seems to be moving away from the concept, splitting up the three over-60 golfers in this year's field.
 
Crenshaw is OK with that. He's sees no need to have a bunch of old guys clogging up the course.
 
'A lot of us are perfectly happy with that,' he said. 'We've had our time. It's time to start watching these young guys.'
 
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