- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 9, 2005

The average sports fan always has viewed golf as an old man’s game. Turns out he was right.

Several years ago, golf’s Young Guns were the talk of the PGA Tour. Thanks to Tiger Woods, golf supposedly had assumed cool status among the world’s athletically inclined youngsters. And spearheaded by players like Spain’s Sergio Garcia, a wave of twentysomething talents was expected to crash on the PGA Tour’s established pantheon, leaving a fresh new order of Woods wannabes in its wake.

But while the golf world was busy waiting for the revolution, golf’s old guard experienced a renaissance. Instead of the youngsters taking over a sport with the now 29-year-old Woods ensconced as its unquestioned king, the game’s balance of power has shifted toward the other end of the age spectrum, and a 42-year-old veteran fittingly has claimed the throne.

“It’s all luck,” said Vijay Singh, who headlines a star-stuffed field at this week’s Booz Allen Classic at Congressional after parlaying 15 post-40 victories since 2003 into the world’s No. 1 ranking. “I think it’s a combination of everything — fitness, equipment and the desire to compete. … There’s plenty of precedents for late success. Jack Nicklaus won the Masters at 46. Sam Snead won events after 50. Why can’t we do it?”

The “we” in Singh’s statement refers to the raft of older players who have thrived in recent years, pushing the average age of a winner on the PGA Tour from its historically standard mark of 31.0 in 2000 to a record high of 35.7 this season.

Fortysomething outbursts have become routine. Just last week, 42-year-old Bart Bryant bested one of the strongest fields of the season at the Memorial. It was his second victory in as many seasons after an arduous career of rank-and-file anonymity.

Kenny Perry, 44, already has won twice this season and has collected six of his nine triumphs after his 40th birthday.

Local favorite Fred Funk, 48, won the Players Championship earlier this year against the season’s best field to date. Joey Sindelar won the Wachovia Championship last year at 46, snapping a 14-year victory drought. And in 2003, Scott Hoch (47), Peter Jacobson (49) and Craig Stadler (50) collected laurels.

Jay Haas is still cranking out top 10s at 51, making the cut in all 11 of his starts this season.

“Some of it is undoubtedly equipment,” Haas said recently. “The technological advances in the industry have enabled old guys like me to hit it as straight and farther than we ever have.”

Fact is two of golf’s primary prerequisites, patience and experience, never favored younger players. But for years, strength, endurance and fresh nerves allowed younger players to overwhelm both their natural weaknesses and their elders. The equipment industry has stripped youngsters of one advantage. The health and fitness kick has lessened another. And now, it seems, the overall formula favors the game’s older set.

Otherwise, it’s difficult to explain both the rash of aging victors and the somewhat disappointing results of the once-ballyhooed Young Guns. The names synonymous with that title are Garcia, Adam Scott, Luke Donald, Aaron Baddeley, Charles Howell, Matt Kuchar, David Gossett, Trevor Immelman, Hank Kuehne and Justin Rose. Of the 10, only Scott has lived up to his hype. The 24-year-old Aussie and Booz Allen defending champion has four victories in less than three full seasons on the PGA Tour, highlighted by a title at last year’s Players Championship.

Garcia and Donald are in the next tier. Donald, 27, has blossomed this season, recording an impressive eight top-20 finishes in nine PGA Tour starts and rising to No. 12 in the latest world rankings. Garcia, 25, has five PGA Tour victories and the No. 6 ranking to his credit. But when a career basically starts with an unforgettable duel with Tiger at a major championship (1999 PGA) at the age of 19, the world tends to expect a little more.

“I think we’ve done all right as a group, certainly not world beating,” Scott said in defense of younger golfers. “Honestly, I think Sergio is the only one of us who I would have expected to win a major by now, just because he’s been around for a while and earned some good chances.”

Said Garcia yesterday: “It really doesn’t bother me at all [that I haven’t yet won a major]. I know I’m going to have chances. I’m just waiting for that moment, just trying to keep putting myself in position to try and win. And if it comes through, great. If not, I’ll just keep waiting for it. I’m not too worried about it at the moment.”

Slam issues aside, it’s difficult to argue that the top three Young Guns haven’t enjoyed promising career starts. The other seven, however, have been disappointments. Between them they have a total of three PGA Tour victories — one each for Howell (2002 Michelob), Gossett (2001 John Deere) and Kuchar (2002 Honda). And not only did all three of those victories come in third-tier events, the most recent came nearly three years ago.

For this struggling clique, however, perhaps there is a silver lining in golf’s recent reverse revolution. The clock might well be ticking faster on the respective careers of the not-so-Young Guns. But in light of golf’s recent trend, a little time and a touch of gray might be the perfect professional prescription.

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