ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – First it was Greg Norman, proving for three rounds that age is merely a number. Then along came Tom Watson, just a couple of months shy of his 60th birthday, standing over an 8-foot putt that would have made him the oldest major champion in golf history.
Both Norman and Watson came up short, of course.
But their turn-back-the-clock efforts at the past two British Opens showed it’s not unfeasible for someone to win golf’s oldest major title when they’re past their prime.
Should we expect another Old-timer’s Day at St. Andrews?
Two-time winner Padraig Harrington, who beat a then-53-year-old Norman in the final round of the 2008 Open at Birkdale, wouldn’t be surprised at all.
A links course is certainly one of those spots, though Phil Mickelson believes St. Andrews – with the daunting length of certain holes, such as No. 4, and wide-open spaces that invite a player to go with his driver all over the course – is more favorable to a younger player than either Birkdale or Turnberry, where Watson lost to Stewart Cink in a playoff last year at age 59.
“It would not surprise me to see somebody with a lot of experience, a little bit older, play well here,” Mickelson said. “However, I do think that some of the younger players who hit the ball a long ways off the tee have a distinct advantage. So I would anticipate that those players would come out on top.”
Graeme McDowell, coming off a surprising triumph at the U.S. Open, looks at it differently. Experience counters the mental strain of playing in a major – especially for a player who already has captured a title on one of golf’s biggest stages.
“Major championships require patience and discipline,” McDowell said. “A guy in his late 50s and 60s is not as long as he used to be, but he has the mental discipline and the patience to realize that you’ve got to plot your way around. Even if the wind was to drop here at St. Andrews and all of a sudden the golf course becomes sort of a presumed gift, the pins are going to be tucked away and they’re going to be tough to get at and you’ve got to position your ball well.”
Mickelson played a practice round Tuesday with 52-year-old Nick Faldo, who captured one of his three Open titles at St. Andrews two decades ago. Sir Nick isn’t likely to contend this week, devoting more time these days to the broadcast booth than the driving range, but his local knowledge is invaluable.
“I asked him a bunch of questions because he’s got a lot of great thoughts on St. Andrews and avoiding bunkers and shots into the greens and what allowed him to win and be so dominant in 1990,” Mickelson said. “He played some of the best golf you’ve ever seen here.”
The late Julius Boros remains the oldest major winner, capturing the 1968 PGA Championship when he was 48. But the old-timers keep knocking on the door, especially at this tournament and the Masters.
At 48, Kenny Perry was poised to win the 2009 Masters until he bogeyed the final two holes of regulation then lost to Angel Cabrera in a playoff. This past April, 50-year-old Fred Couples opened with a 66 to become the oldest player to hold the outright lead after the first round at Augusta National; he faded to sixth at the end but managed to strike another blow for the geriatric generation.
But Watson’s showing at Turnberry was the most amazing of all. He went to the 72nd hole with a one-stroke lead, struck his second shot solidly but just over the green, and wound up badly missing an 8-foot putt for par that would have clinched the claret jug for the sixth time.
Unable to bounce back after coming so close, Watson was drubbed in the four-hole playoff by Cink. Still, it was a performance for the ages.
“Tom Watson should have, could have won,” McDowell said. “I’m sure Cink was a great champion, but the fairy-tale story was for Tom to win, and we’re all kind of disappointed to not see that happen.”
Watson is among nine golfers in the Open’s 50-and-over flight, and perhaps the strongest contender in the bunch even though he’s the oldest. But keep an eye on Mark O’Meara, who won the Open in 1998 and has been playing well on the Champions Tour. And there’s also Perry, who turns 50 in less than a month and has missed only one cut all year on the PGA Tour, though he’s never been a fan of links golf.
“There’s no doubt that a player who stays physically fit can keep competing,” Harrington said. “But really, does he stay mentally sharp? Does he have that adrenaline?”
Watson knows that everything would have to come together perfectly for him to have another shot at winning, and his iron play was a bit shaky coming into the week. But he made the cut at the first two majors of the year – finishing 18th at Augusta and 29th at the U.S. Open on daunting Pebble Beach – and no one is ruling out another age-defying weekend.