Why Are There More Successful Older Golfers Today?

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By Paul Sullivan

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

A hard ricochet sent the ball off the back of the green, and it took Watson three more strokes to get the ball into the hole. That put him in a tie for the first time. He ran out of gas in the four-hole playoff and lost by six strokes.

A decade ago, the idea that an older golfer could compete, let alone win, a major championship was something few considered. That was the time when most golfers ran out in their mid-40s and hit the golf world before they saw a brief resurgence of the Champions Tour at 50.

The man who defeated Watson that day, Stewart Cink, is now part of a group of professional golfers who defy age and expectations to win and win tournaments and majors. Cink, 48, has won the PGA Tour twice this season, his first victories since the 2009 Open.

Stewart Cink. (FILE)

Heading these middle-aged underdogs is Phil Mickelson, who won the PGA Championship in May at the age of 51. He beat Brooks Koepka, a four-time major winner, and Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 British Open champion, both around 30 years old.

The group also includes Lee Westwood, 48, who won his third Race to Dubai in 2020. He then finished second behind Bryson DeChambeau at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and second in the Players Championship for Justin Thomas the next week.

At last month’s US Open, Richard Bland, 48, of England was the oldest person to lead the tournament at halftime. He was also the oldest first-time winner of the European Tour when he won the Betfred British Masters in May.

“All of these guys took a new approach,” says Dave Phillips, co-founder of the Titleist Performance Institute, which focuses on golf and fitness. “There’s a lot of money out there. They realize that they can still keep up with the younger guys, but they need to spend more time on their bodies and what they fuel their bodies with. “

Phillips, who coaches Jon Rahm, the 26-year-old winner of this year’s US Open, has been part of Mickelson’s training team for years.

Cink, who is in the field at Royal St. George’s this week, said his two wins this season were due to nothing. “I’m 47, 48, but I didn’t feel like it might feel like when I was 28,” he said. “My heart and mind make me feel like I’m 10, 15 years younger.”

He credits club technology, but also the fitness program that the players who invented Tiger Woods embraced to compete against him.

Tiger Woods, Tiger Woods car accident In this file photo, Tiger Woods puts up a putt (Source: USA TODAY Sports)

Westwood said he always worked to be fit and it paid off. But he also knows his limits.

“Everyone’s talking about how far Bryson it hits, and he hits it for miles,” Westwood said. “When you’re younger you could try to keep up with him. At 47, 48 you are smarter and more knowledgeable. I couldn’t keep up with him when I wanted to. But I can meet him first and closer to the pin and put a little pressure on him. “

Mickelson has made his training program very public, including how he “bombs” – his name for the very long drives he encounters on younger players. But he’s also making better decisions on the pitch, Phillips said, like playing strategy in winning the PGA championship that year. (His caddy is his brother Tim.)

Phillips said what Mickelson and the others were doing provided lessons for older golfers. “It’s not strength that counts, but recovery and downtime,” he said. “It lets your body recover. Everyone wants to get fitter, stronger, faster. They are upset if they don’t see the results. But what they do tires the body more than a round of golf. “

Crucial for older players? Maintain leg strength, Phillips said, and that means walking, not riding, when you play golf.

“When I toured in 1996, there was no doubt that in your mid-30s you should retire from professional golf and take a professional club job,” said Padraig Harrington, 49, three major winner and European captain of the Ryder Cup Year. “Then more money came into play. And now there is no job that pays you as well as on tour. “

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

“One of the great things that you see about Phil, Lee Westwood, is that when we’re not competing, it’s difficult,” he said. “When we get into an argument, we fall back on it. We are much better when we are competing than when we are in this gray area. Sunday, when there is a bit of energy, let’s get started. “