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Oldies But Goodies: Why Older Players Thrive at the British Open

Photo: Robert Beck

At Turnberry in 2009, Tom Watson out-anticipated his younger rivals.

This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of GOLF magazine.

Nick Faldo turns 58 during the British Open, which will be his last Open as a player. It's not that he's too old. He's just on TV all the time, rather than on the range. At the British you're only as old as you feel. Greg Norman held the 54-hole lead at the 2008 Open at age 53. A year later, Tom Watson, 59, was one yipped putt away from winning. Then fortysomethings Darren Clarke, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson claimed the 2011, 2012 and 2013 titles. Oldies love the Open. Why?

”The courses are flat, and it's an easier walk!" Faldo says with a laugh. "You're playing old-school golf, along the rough ground, in the wind, with a bit of brain instead of brawn."

To Faldo's point, most majors require moon-shot ballstriking. The British is the great equalizer.

Although the Old Course rewards length, the Open is often played on rumpled courses with lots of character and few forced carries. When Watson nearly won at Turnberry six years ago, he simply anticipated better than his younger competitors the bounces off the fairway mounds and near the greens. He didn't bludgeon the course into submission— he let it run through him. Now slim, Clarke was a husky, cigar-chomping bon vivant when he won at Royal St. George's. It didn't hurt that the flat course was an easy walk. Els scouted out Royal Lytham & St. Annes three weeks before the 2012 Open and remembered why he likes the course: flat, slow greens—much slower than the slick tabletops that can bedevil him on Tour.

The 2012 Open was also Els's third at Lytham, so he knew the bounces. "The Open is especially good for experienced players," Els says. "[We know] the way the ball moves along the ground, the strategy to anticipate that, especially off the tee, to avoid the pot bunkers—it can take five or six years to finally figure that out." Institutional memory, few forced carries, a manageable walk, sedate greens—no wonder the old guys love golf's oldest major.

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