Sunday, July 19, 2009
Sensational! Once in a lifetime! Even though he lost, that is how Tom Watson's performance at this year's British Open will be remembered. The oldest player to win any PGA Tour event was Sam Snead at age 52--for a 59-year-old to almost claim a major makes that seem trivial. We certainly won't see it again any time soon (or at least until Tiger Woods is that old!).
How improbable was Watson's performance really though? (It certainly didn't hurt that Phil Mickelson stayed home and Tiger missed the cut). Sure older players lose some distance on their drives, presumably a little hand-eye coordination and all. But golf is a lot more about consistency than about ability to react, and consistency is not lost with time. The truth is that 50+ year-olds almost never get to play in major tournaments in the first place.
To qualify for the British Open you probably need to be high enough on the Tour money list. That would require you to play 30 tournaments a year, which is much harder on older players.
The only reason Watson got to play was because he was a former champion (this was his last year to qualify under current British Open rules, which only includes former champions under the age of 60.) Watson has made 5/8 British Open cuts since turning 50, but just 1/10 at the Masters. Nicklaus from age 50-59 made 8/9 Masters cuts and 5/8 British Open cuts, and finished tied for 6th at the '98 Masters at age 58.
If other top Senior Tour players were able to more easily qualify for Tour events, then would we see results like this regularly? Not regularly, as long as Tiger Woods stays healthy. But Watson proved it would not be out of the question.
That a 59-year-old did well at a major is perhaps just as unlikely as a 59-year-old getting to participate in the first place.