- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2001

AUGUSTA, Ga. There were 46 candles on Greg Norman's birthday cake earlier this year. That makes him the same age Jack Nicklaus was when he became the oldest player to win the Masters in 1986. Has Norman thought about this during his preparations for Augusta? You're darn right he has.

Of course, the Shark played a leading role in that '86 drama. He bogeyed the 72nd hole to drop out of a tie for first and hand Nicklaus his sixth green jacket. "I was 31 when that happened," he said after his practice round yesterday, "and I thought it was pretty great that Jack was able to do that. It's something a lot of the older guys think about, I'm sure, not just myself. If you've got the will and the body and the desire, there's no reason why you can't win this tournament."

Norman didn't fare too badly here at the age of 45. He shot 68-70-70 in the last three rounds 8 under par. The only problem was that he shot an 80 in the first round 8 over par. He obviously can still play the course, though. And let's not forget: This is the Masters, where "something occurs that we remember forever, every single year," as Phil Mickelson puts it.

"It could be '97 Tiger [Woods] breaking the [tournament] record," Mickelson says. "It could be '92 Fred Couples' ball hanging up on the bank on 12 [instead of rolling back into Rae's Creek]. Or Ian Woosnam [in '91] making that putt from six feet on 18 and [jabbing] his fist [in the air]. Gene Sarazen's hole-out on 15 [in '35] with a 4-wood. Every year history is made.

"Obviously, great courses like Pebble Beach and Merion and Pinehurst and other U.S. Open courses have had some wonderful things occur there. We remember Nicklaus' iron hitting the pin [on 17 in the '72 Open at Pebble] and Watson's chip-in [on the same hole in '82]. But that doesn't happen every year. That happens once every 10 years."

Maybe this will be the Year of the Geezer at Augusta. And if it isn't Norman who breaks through after three second-place finishes and three thirds, maybe it will be 45-year-old Loren Roberts or 44-year-old Nick Price or 42-year-old Hal Sutton or 42-year-old Tom Lehman. All five placed in the top 11 in the last Masters. So did 41-year-old Fred Couples, the '92 champ. And don't forget about 43-year-old Bernhard Langer, a two-time winner ('85, '93). Bernhard just took third in the Players Championship, two strokes behind Tiger.

Am I being hopelessly sentimental here? Perhaps. But the age of Masters champions has been creeping up in recent years. Vijay Singh, last year's winner, was 37. Mark O'Meara, the '98 winner, was 41. Nick Faldo, the '96 winner, was 38. Ben Crenshaw, the '95 winner, was 43. Despite the presence of Woods and several other Terrific Tots, the Masters has not been a young man's tournament lately.

Consider: The average age of the last 11 champs is 33.9. The average age of the 11 champs before that? Four years younger: 29.9.

Golfers aren't getting older these days, they're getting better technology and fitness trailers have seen to that. What's hard about playing in your 40s, said Norman, "isn't staying in shape. It's hitting 500 golf balls a day" to keep your game sharp. For the Masters, though, the Old Guys can summon the necessary enthusiasm to get themselves primed even if they have to spend the rest of the year in physical therapy.

Besides, there's such a mystical quality about Augusta. It's the Land of the Unlikely. Only in the Masters could a player shoot an 80 in the first round, recover to take a three-stroke lead on the back nine on the final day and then blow the tournament (as Curtis Strange did, to his eternal regret, in '85).

"I think more dramatic things happen here than anyplace else good and bad because of the severity of the course," Sutton theorizes. "Sometimes I'll hit a shot that looks 30 feet from the hole, and it winds up a foot [away] and I'll wonder about that. And sometimes I'll hit one right at the flag, and it winds up in the water and I'll wonder about that, too."

It's a wondrous place, all right, full of bizarre bounces and tricky greens and booby traps and screaming eagles. (The players get the eagles, usually at 13 or 15, and the gallery does the screaming.) The club keeps tinkering with the course lengthening a hole here, putting in a fairway bunker there but its essential nature remains unchanged: Anything can happen at Augusta.

Norman might even win here at 46. Why not? We've seen more unexplainable occurrences (e.g. Larry Mize chipping in from 140 feet to beat the Shark in the '87 playoff). The Masters is a tournament like no other.

Well, in most respects.

"Do you agree," Sutton was asked, "that, as they say, the tournament begins on the back nine on Sunday?"

"No," replied Hal, spikes planted firmly in the ground. "I believe it starts at 8 o'clock Thursday morning on the first tee."

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