If the 78th playing of the Masters proved anything, it's that the 50-and-over set can still contend at Augusta National. The seniors will even tell you that one of them is going to win someday soon
THE DAY IS coming. A man using reading glasses in the scorer's room, with half a hundred winters in his memory bank, is going to win the Masters. Here's a partial list of people who were talking last week about that inevitability: Gary Player (78), Fred Couples (54), Vijay Singh (51), Tiger Woods (38). Jack Nicklaus is the oldest winner of a Masters, at age 46 in 1986. Suddenly, that doesn't seem so old anymore. Fifty-six is the new 46. Couples will be 56 the year after next, and guys can win at 56, former Masters champions were saying last week. One of them held out hope for a win at 61.
You go to the former winners in this conversation, because they get to play every year, but last week Miguel Angel Jiménez, who is 50, finished fourth, four shots behind Bubba Watson. Four shots back, despite a second-round 76. His Saturday 66 was the low round of the week. One of the guys who beat him by a shot, Jordan Spieth, is 20. The Mechanic is not long. His putting is nice, not extravagant. But he has two exceptional skills. He can hit the ball precise distances, and he can think his way around a course. Those skills have a long shelf life.
Bernhard Langer shares those attributes. "I have said for years that a player in his 50s will win a major," Langer, who is 56, said last week. He finished even par for the tournament and in a tie for eighth. His Sunday 69 matched the Sunday score made by Bubba his own self.
Langer won his first Masters in '85 and his second in '93. A lifetime in the sun has weathered his face, but his physique has barely changed over the past three decades, and his swing is essentially the same, too. He hits the ball nearly as far as he did 20 years ago—except, notably, with the driver. His putter is reliable, and he knows more about the course now than ever. He's accustomed to winning. So he has a lot going for him, and if there were ever a week with really fast fairways, he'd have even more going for him.
But what Langer doesn't know, what he cannot know, is how his mind will work on the final nine holes with a third green jacket on the line. "I would anticipate no problems," he said. What would you expect him to say, that he'll fold? We're talking about Bernhard, a man who looked yips in the eye and beat that golfing cancer.
AT THE champions dinner this year, Langer sat with Larry Mize, the 1987 winner, who is 55. They sit together every year. Mize, like Langer, has a physique and a swing frozen in time. For the first time since 2000 they both made the cut. Mize finished last among those who played 72 holes. But over the first 36 he beat Ernie Els, Graeme McDowell, Sergio García, Webb Simpson, Dustin Johnson and other Tour winners. How is that possible? Course wisdom, Mize said in his own modest way.
A record six players 50 or older made the cut last week. Trying to explain this phenomenon, various men in makeup and ties said that in the firm, fast conditions the advantage of length was diminished. But players said the opposite. They said the fairways never recovered from the daylong soaking the course received on the Monday before the tournament. Tee shots didn't take big, hot bounces or run into the first cut. There wasn't much roll in the fairways. The fact that Mize made the cut, hitting fairway woods and hybrids into some of the long par-4s, is extraordinary. It tells you how intelligently he played the course.
Nobody is expecting Mize to win a second Masters. But could you imagine Vijay Singh, who is 51, making a second Butler Cabin appearance? Why not? Singh, who is still as long as the average Tour player, or longer, finished 37th last week. He is certain he can win again.
"You learn to putt and chip the greens better every year," Singh said last week. "Mentally I'm as into it as I've ever been. Age is not an issue here. So you just have to put it all together. You could have a winner in his 50s here."
He walked to the putting green for some postround practice.
"Can you be competitive here for the next five years?" Singh was asked.
"Easily," he said.
He got to the green.
That gets the man to 61.
By that math, Couples has at least another seven tournaments to claim his second green jacket. To win at Augusta, it is helpful to be a five-tool player, with skill, finesse, focus, length and charisma in your arsenal. And you need to be healthy. In varying degrees Couples has all of that. Egged on all week by a series of texts from Woods, Couples opened with rounds of 71, 71 and 73, and he began the Sunday round trailing Watson and Spieth by four strokes.
Couples hit a short iron to 12 feet on the 1st green and made the birdie putt. He got up and down from a greenside trap on the par-5 2nd hole for another birdie. Suddenly he was three under for the tournament and only two back. His tee shot at the 3rd went too far—adrenaline!—and his second shot was a most delicate 60-yard pitch shot that Couples inspected for well over two minutes. He walked the length of the shot, he considered every possible landing area, he studied the green, and finally he played a prudent and solid shot. You could see his mind at work. His ball settled about 15 feet from the hole.
He missed the putt, and the slow, methodical obsessiveness he had shown for three holes seemed to fade, never really to return. He shot 75, for 290 and a 20th-place finish. But does he have the skill to shoot eight under, 280, as Watson did last week? Of course he does.
"Somebody in their 50s is going to win here," Couples said last week. "Look, if I can play this course at 54, what is Tiger gonna do at 54? You don't think he's going to play it better than Larry Mize and Sandy Lyle and me?" Yeah, he's going to play it better than Larry Mize and Sandy Lyle and maybe even you. That is, if he can get his circa 2000 body back. "He can play here for another 20 years," Couples said, "but nothing else can go wrong."
Couples was offering an intriguing possibility: Woods playing Augusta National competitively for the next 20 years. In 2035, Woods will be 59. Maybe we've been looking at things the wrong way. Woods isn't chasing Big Jack and his 18 majors. It's more like he's crawling after them. Time, as the song says, is on his side. Nobody's getting the hook here. Did you miss Tiger and Phil last weekend? Well, Fred and Bernhard are here to tell you: Those two are going to be around for years. And they'll be playing to win.
Nicklaus is the oldest winner of a Masters, at age 46 in 1986. Suddenly that doesn't seem so old anymore. Fifty-six is the new 46.
"Look, if I can play this course at 54," Couples said, "what is Tiger gonna do at 54?"
Photograph by ROBERT BECK SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
SENIOR MOMENT Jiménez, who turned 50 in January, posted the low round of the week en route to a fourth-place finish, his best showing in 15 Masters appearances.
KOHJIRO KINNO FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (COUPLES)
THREE'S COMPANY Langer, a two-time winner at Augusta, was low senior, but he has his sights set on the big prize.
AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (LANGER)
HERE'S FREDDY! With Woods acting as his cheerleader, Couples was under par through three rounds and crept within two shots of the lead on Sunday.
AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
HERE TO STAY Never mind the 50s. At 51, Singh, the 2000 Masters champion, believes he can contend at Augusta National for another decade.