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Forties can be tough to fathom for pro golfers

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For his 40th birthday Padraig Harrington received a vintage Coca-Cola machine, and he can talk your ears off about its charms.

The machine takes quarters – as any good vintage item should - and apparently dispenses the iciest-cold bottles you’ve ever tasted.

But ask Harrington about the significance of his 40th birthday and one of the most talkative players on the PGA Tour grows quiet.

“Nothing,” Harrington, now 41, said of the birthday milestone during the Byron Nelson Championship. “Nothing at all.”

But? But?

“Nothing,” he said, eyes narrowing.

Harrington is hardly the only golfer to look askance at a philosophical discussion of the aging golfer. The topic lives on the fairways and greens of the professional game but also in sports as a whole. (Who doesn’t recall the story of Willie Mays falling down in the outfield as an ancient member of the New York Mets?)

So what are we to make of the golfer past 40?

Does “40 as the new 30” apply to the professional golfer? Who can know for sure?

On Bermuda on Wednesday, Harrington held off a younger trio of Bubba Watson, Webb Simpson and Keegan Bradley to win the PGA Grand Slam of Golf for the first time.

But three days earlier, forty-somethings Davis Love III (tee shot into the water), David Toms (tee shot into a bunker) and Jim Furyk (tee shot left of the green) each failed to chase down Tommy “Two Gloves” Gainey down the stretch at The McGladrey Classic.

Were those nervous golf swings by fading champions or was that just golf?

People have forever pointed to Jack Nicklaus’ win at the 1986 Masters at age 46 as proof that older players can still do magic. Sam Snead won the Greater Greensboro Open at age 52, the oldest winner in PGA Tour history. Tom Watson’s near victory at 59 at the 2009 Open Championship at Turnberry provided further evidence that winning tournaments with salt and pepper is not farfetched.

But are Nicklaus, Snead and Watson exceptions or the rule? And, besides, aren’t they three of the greatest players of all time?

Tiger Woods often points to Nicklaus (and now Watson) as evidence that he has plenty of time to surpass Nicklaus’ mark of 18 major championships, but history says he’d better hurry.

Only 36 of the last 423 major championships (dating back to 1860) have been won by forty-somethings, the last two being Darren Clarke at the 2011 Open Championship and Ernie Els at the 2012 Open Championship.

Woods’s golfing gifts are all-time, but that does not mean winning majors in his 40s will be a slam dunk. 

At the 2010 Transitions Championship I posed the question to Jim Furyk about soon turning 40, neither of us knowing he would win that tournament and two more besides, claiming the FedEx Cup title and Player of the Year award at the season’s end.

“I feel a lot of it has to do with the fire and the want and desire to want to play,” Furyk said then. “You get a lot of guys when they get in their mid 40s, family becomes more important. They’ve got other business and other things going on and golf takes a back seat and it makes it a lot harder to compete. I definitely am not planning on retiring any time in the next few years. When I decide it’s time I’d like to be able to do it because I want to do it, not because I have to.”

Two years after winning Player of the Year, Furyk found himself in contention all season long, losing in a playoff at the Transitions, hitting a hook into the trees at The Olympic Club, and handing the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational to Keegan Bradley after making a mess of the 18th hole.

Furyk hit some wonderful shots at the Ryder Cup, but his missed putts will be all that’s remembered.

Surely, the desire was there but maybe the nerves were, too.

At 48, Kenny Perry said a poor chip on the 17th hole on Sunday of the 2009 Masters might have cost him a green jacket.

“I can’t stop my right hand when I get a little nervous,” he said then. “It wants to shoot a little bit and I can’t calm it down.”

Vijay Singh has won 22 times after turning 40 (including a major, the 2004 PGA Championship) but how many forty-somethings can match him for talent and work ethic?

These are the questions that dominate golf and sports. We don’t know when the winning will stop, only that it does for everyone. It is why Harrington’s smile was so wide in Bermuda and why Furyk’s face was pained in Sea Island.  

In a game of many mysteries, the 40s provide no certainties.