Hope for the round bellies

Thought for the Day
The distance between insanity and genius is measured only by success

Hope for the round bellies
The tradition in golf for decades was that you had to pay your dues in your 20s, gaining experience, learning from those around you, before achieving full potential by the end of that decade, and then cashing in during the glory years of the 30s.

That all changed, largely through hotshots like Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia, followed by the likes of Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas, who seemed to arrive as fully-formed, hard-bitten competitors barely out of their teens. They weren’t the only golfers to succeed early in their careers – Jack Nicklaus, for example, won his first major at the age of 22 but, as in so many areas, that was a freakish statistic that separated him from the herd.

In recent years, however, the trend towards a lengthy apprenticeship has disappeared, and if you’re not ready to win by the time you start shaving, you’ve fallen behind. Will Zalatoris finished second in the Masters last month at the age of 24; Collin Morikawa was defending the US PGA Championship he won in 2020 when he was a year younger. Rory McIlroy won his first pro event aged 19, and within four years had two majors. And while it feels as if he’s been around for a while (and he has), Jon Rahm is still only 26.

So the pattern is established; youth, far from being wasted on the young, is everything in the modern game.

And then Phil Mickelson, at the age of 50, becomes the oldest major winner in the history of golf. Not only that, he led a platoon of round bellies across the finish line. Padraig Harrington (tied 4th) is just a few weeks younger than the winner; Paul Casey, at 43 years, finished alongside him and Justin Rose, at the tender age of 40, was just a stroke back. But before we get too carried away with the resurgence of the geriatrics, also tied 8th, at one-under par, alongside Rose, were the previously mentioned Will Zalatoris and Collin Morikawa, who were joined by Scottie Scheffler (24).

It should be remembered that the Champions (now Legends) Tour was created as far back as 1980, because it was recognised that 50-year-olds could no longer be competitive against their juniors. And while a few freakish exceptions named Hale Irwin and Bernhard Langer continued winning three-day events against their peers past the age of 60, they were (and in Langer’s case are) seen as anachronisms. Yes, you can beat others who aren’t too far short of drawing a pension but your winning days at the main event, the PGA Tour, are over, and you had better get used to the idea.

Then the magnificent Phil Mickelson, who somehow rediscovered the knack of finding fairways, threw all that to the winds en route to his second US PGA title and sixth major. He has always been a good iron player and his short game is a thing of genius, matched only be Seve Ballesteros in his pomp, but what stopped Phil winning even more titles was an inability to find the short grass when he had a driver in his hand. At Kiawah Island, where danger lurked everywhere, he drove as straight as at any time in his career. Not only that, on the final day he was consistently knocking it way past playing companion Brooks Koepka, no slouch himself with the big stick.

In truth it was a memorable and heart-warming major championship, in which the course itself played a starring role, but after the front nine on Sunday, lacked real drama because no-one could put enough pressure on Phil to make it a real contest. The two closest contenders, Louis Oosthuizen and Brooks Koepka, shot 73 and 74 respectively, in both cases their worst rounds of the week. And while Mickelson’s 73 was also his only round over par, when you start the last day in the lead, and none of your real challengers mounts a consistent assault, it will end with only one result.

It was also a treat to have him cheered home by a sizeable, if occasionally over-enthusiastic gallery who, in the manner of American sports fans, allowed their passion to stray a little too far towards partisanship by booing Koepka. An absence of protective face mask was also evident and it will be revealing to hear whether South Carolina suffers a spike in coronavirus infections, in a state where just under a third of the population have been fully vaccinated to date.

Phil Mickelson has given hope to oldies everywhere that, with modern fitness, dietary and psychological advances, that they can go head-to-head with the best for a wee while longer. What are the odds, do you think, that a 45-year-old golfer, currently sitting at home in Florida, recuperating from a car accident, hasn’t sat up and taken notice?

Quote of the Week
There’s not a guy standing on the range that wouldn’t put [the PGA] head-and-shoulders over any tournament in the world – apart from the other three major championships.
Graeme McDowell

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