Could the rise of golf’s kiddie corps take a back seat this week at the Masters?
The last two winners of golf’s major championships — Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas are both 24 and not old enough to rent a car without a stiff penalty. They make reigning US Open champion Brooks Koepka seem like an old man at age 27.
For those who think the world is over once they hit 40 — or at least their chances of winning a green jacket — they may want to take a second look. Forty is suddenly the new 20 on the PGA Tour.
In the past month, Phil Mickelson, 47, Paul Casey, 40, and Ian Poulter, 42, most recently at last week’s Houston Open, have turned back the clocks and returned to the winner’s circle in dramatic fashion.
Add in Tiger Woods having a putt to force a playoff with Casey at the Valspar Championship and it is as if pro golf has hopped into a hot-tub time machine.
Even Mickelson noted that he had texted Woods: “It felt like it was a different time continuum.”
What it has done is give new hope to the nine participants in their 40s in the 82nd Masters, which also include former major winners Woods, Jason Dufner, Zach Johnson, and Henrik Stenson, that they can still compete in a game where No2-4 in the world are under 25.
With renewed confidence, these seasoned vets spit in the face of the fact that only six past champions of the Masters have been age 40 or older, and none since Mark O’Meara (41) 20 years ago.
“It definitely is the year it could change,” said three-time Masters winner Nick Faldo.
When Jack Nicklaus became the oldest champion of the Masters in 1986 at age 46, his best days seemed behind him.
Given the Masters pedigree of Mickelson and his recent good form, would we really be surprised if he were to shatter Nicklaus’s age record by more than a year?
Prior to his victory at the WGC Mexico Championship, Mickelson had been written off by many, but there seems to be some gas left in the tank and for that we should thank Jon Rahm, the 23-year-old wunderkind who is No3 in the Official World Golf Ranking.
Rahm played at Arizona State, Mickelson’s alma mater. He played there for Tim Mickelson, Phil’s brother. Tim worked as Rahm’s manager until he gave up the gig to replace Jim ‘Bones’ Mackay on his brother’s bag.
Phil and Rahm have a relationship that reminds me of O’Meara and Woods at the start of his career. O’Meara was something of a big brother figure to Woods, and it was a mutually beneficial relationship. Woods lifted O’Meara to new heights; he won two majors in 1998.
For several years now, Mickelson has taken young up-and-comers such as Keegan Bradley under his wing and included them in his money games. It keeps Mickelson feeling young and relevant and has made him the unofficial captain of the US Ryder Cup team.
Augusta National is a course where experience is a critical asset, which explains why the average age of a Masters champion is slightly more than 32.
PGA Tour Champions star Bernhard Langer has been a perennial threat to win the Masters well into his 50s, as has Fred Couples.
“The guys are much fitter nowadays than golfers have ever been, I think,” said Langer. “You have guys like Mickelson, Fred Couples, and a few others in the future that are still long enough to tame this golf course or to have a chance if their short game is good. And it’s going to be more of them in the future.”
So why has it been 20 years since a golden oldie has worn a green jacket?
“If you’re going to be honest with yourself, you don’t work anywhere near as hard at 40 as you did at 25,” said ESPN golf analyst Andy North, a two-time US Open winner.
If it is Mickelson, he may want to thank Rahm, who is less than half his age, for the assist.
“To me, I still look up to him a lot, still an idol, and I know every time I see him it’s wow,” said Rahm. “But I don’t think, I don’t consider him old.”
Rahm and Mickelson remind me of another tandem: Vincent Lauria and Eddie Felson from the 1980s movie The Colour of Money. Lauria, played by Tom Cruise, is the hotshot pool protege of Felson, an aging hustler, who is inspired to make a comeback. Paul Newman won an Oscar for reprising his role as “Fast Eddie” from The Hustler.
We all know how Mickelson loves a bet. I can’t help but think of Mickelson and Rahm when re-watching the final scene of the flick.
Lauria: “What are you going to do when I kick your ass?”
Felson: “Pick myself up and let you kick me again. Just don’t put the money in the bank, kid. Because if I don’t whip you now, I’m gonna whip you next month in Dallas. ... And if not then, then the month after that, in New Orleans.”
Lauria: “Oh, yeah? What makes you so sure?”
Felson: “Hey, I’m back.”
Mickelson, Woods, Poulter, and several of the 40-somethings in the field at the Masters this week could make the same claim.
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