Why Are There More Successful Older Golfers Today?

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From the 18th fairway in the final group of the British Open in 2009, Tom Watson, the five-time Open champion, hit a shot that flew right at the pin. For a moment, it looked like Watson, then age 59, would win the tournament for a record sixth time and become the oldest player to win a major championship.

A firm bounce sent the ball off the back of the green, and Watson needed three more shots to get the ball into the hole. That dropped him into a tie for first. In the four-hole playoff, he ran out of gas and lost by six shots.

A decade ago, the idea of an older golfer contending in, let alone winning, a major championship was something few considered. That was still the time when most golfers petered out in their mid-40s and kicked around the golf world before having a brief resurgence on the Champions Tour when they turned 50.

The man who beat Watson that day, Stewart Cink, is now part of a group of professional golfers defying age and expectation to contend and win tournaments and majors. Cink, 48, has won twice this season on the PGA Tour, his first wins since the 2009 Open.

Leading these middle-age mavericks is Phil Mickelson, who, about to turn 51, won the P.G.A. Championship in May. He beat Brooks Koepka, a four-time major winner, and Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 British Open champion, who are both in their 30s.

He credits club technology, but also the fitness regimen that players who came up with Tiger Woods embraced to compete against him.

Westwood said he had always worked on being fit, and it has paid off. But he also knows his limits.

“Everyone talks about how far Bryson hits it, and he hits it miles,” Westwood said. “If you’re younger you might try to keep up with him. At 47, 48, you’re wiser and more knowledgeable. I couldn’t keep up with him if I wanted to. But I can hit it first and closer to the pin and put a bit of pressure on him.”

Often it is the people helping veteran players who keep them going. Cink credits his son Reagan, who has been his caddie this year. “He does relax me, but it’s so much more than that,” Cink said. “He’s learned to approach golf like I do. It’s like having another tour player right beside me.”

The emphasis is on conserving mental energy on the course. The night before a tournament round, Cink and his son look at the next day’s pin placements on the greens and map a strategy for each hole.

“I make it an absolute priority to minimize the energy expenditure when I’m out there on the course,” he said. “I don’t have that reservoir of energy anymore. When you fatigue a bit, your decision making suffers.”

Crucial for older players? Maintain leg strength, Phillips said, and that means walk, don’t ride, when you play golf.

“There’s no doubt when I came out on tour in 1996 generally you were thought to retire from professional golf in your mid-30s and take a club professional job,” said Padraig Harrington, 49, winner of three majors and the European captain for the Ryder Cup this year. “Then more money came into the game. And now there is no job that would pay you as well as being on tour.”

Of course, earning money and winning are very different things, he said. When the players he competed with in their prime win today, he attributes it to their ability to focus on that moment.

“One of the big things you see with Phil, myself, Lee Westwood is when we’re not in contention it’s tough,” he said. “When we do get into contention, we get back into it. We’re much better when we’re in contention than when we’re in that gray zone. Sunday when there’s a bit of energy, we get going.”

It is experience, for sure, but that is a double-edged sword: With age, players are more knowledgeable about the nuances of the game and have, in theory, a better psychological understanding of what to do. But they have also failed to do that in similar moments in the past.

“The reason we’re going longer is we have the financial security to go longer,” he said “We also have the sports science to reinvent ourselves.”

If there ever was an annual fountain of youth, it is the British Open. “The Open is the best of all the tournaments for the older guys,” Harrington said. “It’s more about experience. There’s less physicality on an Open course than a typical stadium course. That’s why Tom Watson could compete at 59 years old at the Open.”

As for Cink, he said facing Watson, who is two decades his senior, in the playoff was actually calming. “As a fan I was consumed thinking, look at Watson go, but then I realized I was in contention,” Cink said. “The playoff almost felt like an out-of-body experience. I would have been sweating bullets, but having Watson involved kept me calm.”



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