I’ve always said you can’t put a price on experience,” Kenny Perry declared at the Players Championship, a golf tournament masquerading as an old-pros’ reunion. Perry had a point. There were times last week when the leader boards looked as if they had been copied off the direct-mail lists of retirement counselors. Your second-round highlight, a 60-foot birdie putt on the island-green 17th, belonged to an emeritus captain of the European Ryder Cup team, Bernhard Langer — a quinquagenarian. Your tournament runner-up, Paul Goydos, was a 43-year-old former substitute teacher. And then you had Perry himself: a big, amiable Kentucky church deacon with a second-childhood love for fast cars. Perry, who turns 48 in August, led this year’s Players after 36 holes and played with Goydos in the last pairing on Sunday; and if you were surprised by that, you shouldn’t have been, because Perry tied for third at the Players as recently as 2004. But Perry, too, has begun to hear his favorite songs in elevators, and sometimes he had trouble reading the fine grain on the Stadium course greens. “I see better with a lot of light,” he explained. “Like, I can’t read this paper right now, but you put a flashlight or something real bright on it, I could read it fine.”
Some of us accept the inevitable and get bifocals. But no matter how you looked at it, it was clear that “experienced” golfers had as good a chance as any to win golf’s so-called fifth major. (Fred Funk was 48 when he won the Players in ’05, and Stephen Ames was 41 in ’06.) Even so, it was startling to see young hotshots like Adam Scott (27) and Anthony Kim (22) struggle to keep up with veterans who normally would be doing sit-ups in preparation for the Champions tour. “Who would have predicted us to be in the last group?” Perry asked on Saturday evening. “I mean, seriously, you have all the kids playing so well…”
There were several theories to explain the rejuvenating properties of the Players. Goydos singled out the firm greens, saying, “The guy who putts well from five to 15 feet is probably going to be successful.” (Goydos had 11 one-putt greens on Saturday.) Another hypothesis was that the Stadium course favors the seasoned plodder over the callow pro. “I’ve been out here 22 years,” Perry said after his opening rounds of 68 and 70. “I know where to hit it, know where to miss it.” Finally, there was the admittedly romantic notion that the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon was correct in placing the Fountain of Youth somewhere along the I-95 corridor. Believers pointed to Langer, who began the week with back, groin, knee and shoulder pain. After inhaling the swamp vapors, however, Langer (who’ll be 51 in August) shot 72-67.
If only the ending had been as good. Langer and Perry looked their ages on Sunday and handed in back-nine scores of 40 and 43, respectively. (They finished together in 15th.) Goydos did much better, but he needed the e word to defend his choice of a pitching wedge in the playoff. “My experience,” he said, “told me it’s not time to try to dink a nine-iron.” So Perry was wrong. You can put a price on experience. At the Players it was $684,000 — the difference between first and second place.