This year marks the 30th anniversary of Jack Nicklaus’s stunning victory at Augusta. It was his 18th and final major win. He remains the oldest Masters champion ever and the second-oldest major winner. (Julius Boros was 48 when he won the 1968 PGA Championship.) Despite the number of talented older players we see in the Masters every year—guys like Fred Couples, Bernhard Langer, and Vijay Singh—Jack’s Masters record has never really been in jeopardy. The reason is clear.
The game of golf has changed fairly dramatically over the last two decades. Course design, equipment advancements and the “bigger, stronger, faster” conditioning mantra of today’s stars have made power a crucial ingredient to Tour success, especially at the majors. With rare exceptions (Merion in 2013), we don’t see the U.S. Open or the PGA Championship visit courses like Colonial or Harbour Town, where short, straight hitters can win.
The Masters became less playable for older competitors after it was significantly lengthened in 2002 and 2006. Sure, Zach Johnson managed to slip on a green blazer in 2007, but that was the year cold weather and strong winds neutralized the big hitters’ advantage, opening the door for Zach’s precision game. These days, the only older guys with a real chance to win are the ones who can still bomb it. In soft conditions, Augusta requires drives of at least 295 yards; 45-year-old Phil Mickelson remains an eligible contender, but the number of players in his age range with that kind of length are few.
Golfers’ careers used to seem endless. Not anymore. Because of power, they have an expiration date.
Health is another factor. As I wrote last month, I believe that this generation’s unbridled pursuit of power will shorten many careers. I fear we’ll see more and more bodies break down. Wrist surgery has sidelined Jim Furyk, 45, and Tiger, 40, has injuries too numerous to mention. Phil has avoided serious issues, but wear and tear takes a toll. Golf careers used to be seemingly endless. Now they have an expiration date, all because of the rise of the power game.
Is it impossible for a player 46 or older to win a major? At Augusta, probably. But it could happen somewhere else. Let’s not forget what Tom Watson almost pulled off at the British Open, in 2009. His playoff loss at Turnberry, at age 59, is still inspiring. If anyone can win a major in his mid-40s or older, it will happen at the British. Why? Between the wet, blustery weather and the quirks of links-course design, the Open Championship demands old-school shot shapes and trajectory control rather than just pure power, and players with experience can still compete.
Unfortunately, that’s no longer the case at the bomber’s paradise that is Augusta.