Pondering the graybeards' success

Pondering the graybeards’ success

AUGUSTA, Ga., April 8 — How can it be? How can it be that a bunch of world-class talents — Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia, Chad Campbell, Robert Allenby and Steve Stricker, among others — didn’t make the cut at the Masters this year, but a foursome of graybeard former champions did?

Fuzzy Zoeller, Sandy Lyle, Craig Stadler and Ben Crenshaw were all playing on the weekend, occupying four of the 60 weekend spots. You can almost put Fred Couples on that list, as he played, though he is not an ancient yet. Tom Watson would be on the list, had he not butchered his 36th hole. You can put Gary Player on the list. His 77 in the Friday round, at age 71 as he played in his 50th Masters, was the round of the day when you consider he hit a wood into every par-4 except No. 1. He didn’t make the cut, but his Friday golf gets him on the list, another result that makes you wonder: How can they be doing it when — last week, anyway — Sergio and Ernie and Co. were not.

There’s an answer, but it’s nothing you can put your finger right on. Of course it’s about skill to some degree, but it’s also about comfort and personal history and golfing wisdom.

There’s a reason why Augusta has had so many repeat winners, including Nick Faldo and Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, to name three players who were on the scoreboard this year under the category Noncompeting Invitees. You learn at Augusta, a thinking person’s golf course if ever there was one. You learn where to hit it, where to miss it, when a three-putt is not the end of the world, how the chips run out once they’re past the hole. You learn it, and if you’re smart you store it, and if your brain’s still working you retrieve it when you need it.

It’s a mystery, how that all works. To sort through your emotions and your memories and to take a realistic assessment of where your game is now and what you actually can do, it takes a type of intelligence that no test can measure, except playing in the Masters. Nice test.

Gentle Ben and The Walrus and The Fuzz and Sandy Lyle, none of them may ever make another cut at Augusta (although the guess here is they will). But this year at the Masters, they poured hundreds of rounds, practice and competitive and recreational, through the funnels of their brains and turned it all into fours days of golf on one of the hardest courses in the world.

They turned all that ephemeral stuff into four days of golf, two more than many others could muster. That foursome was playing golf on the weekend while Ernie Els and Sergio Garcia were among the millions sitting at home and watching the action on TV, trying to make sense of the whole thing, starting their wait for next year.