Seasoned pros hold Augusta upper hand

AUGUSTA • The 84th Masters began in a surreal atmosphere before the storm arrived as Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player hit the ceremonial first tee shots in near darkness at Augusta National yesterday.

Nicklaus and Player emerged from the clubhouse at 6.57am, the exact minute of sunrise, and strode to the tee before daylight had even punctuated the gloom of a light drizzle, as a drone buzzed nearby to film the occasion.

Despite this being a Masters like no other, without spectators due to coronavirus concerns, several hundred people surrounded the tee, mostly members and guests.

Player was first to strike. Swinging better than an 85-year-old has any right to do, he took a full backswing and struck the ball down the left side of the fairway.

Nicklaus, 80, followed suit with a swing slightly shorter than in his heyday that brought him 18 Majors. He too found the fairway.

And with that the first Masters played in autumn was underway.

However, heavy rain showers forced suspension of the opening round only 35 minutes after the start of play, with only nine players having completed one hole.

Nicklaus and Player, two veterans who are still able to hit good shots, are examples of how old may still be gold in golf.

At last year’s Masters, Bernhard Langer, who won the Masters in 1985 and 1993, made his 26th cut at the tournament.

“I know it’s harder because I’m getting older… But if I hit it well and I putt decent, I think I’ll still have chances to win,” the 63-year-old said.

The Masters is unique among the four Major tournaments. Older pros usually contend in the early rounds. No one will be surprised if Fred Couples, 61, the 1992 champion, tops the leaderboard after yesterday and today.

NOUS COUNTS

It is not that we play the course better as we get older. It is that the more we play Augusta, the more experience and knowledge we have of the course. Plus, patience is vital at Augusta, and we are probably a little more patient and less impulsive as we get older.

MIGUEL ANGEL JIMENEZ, 56-year-old Spaniard, who is making his 17th Masters appearance.

Players pushing a mere 50 have won the tournament. Nicklaus was 46 when he won his sixth Masters in 1986. And, of course, last year’s champion, Tiger Woods, was 43 at the time, making him the second-oldest Masters champion.

And because only 50 players and the ones who tie make the cut, these older players are regularly beating out golfers in their 20s and 30s to play on the weekend.

One reason is that even though Augusta National has lengthened the course over the years – to 7,475 yards this year from about 7,000 yards 20 years ago – the well-guarded greens make the approach shots matter more.

“They know the nuances of the course,” said Craig Harmon, a golf teacher in Florida whose father, Claude, won the Masters in 1948.

“You hit it on the wrong side of the hole you have no chance, even if you’re 10 feet away. Or you could be 40 feet away and going for it.”

Miguel Angel Jimenez found more success at the Masters as his course knowledge increased. In 2014, at age 50, he finished in fourth place, ahead of young stars Rickie Fowler and Matt Kuchar.

“It is not that we play the course better as we get older,” he said. “It is that the more we play Augusta, the more experience and knowledge we have of the course. Plus, patience is vital at Augusta, and we are probably a little more patient and less impulsive as we get older. Many older players have also continued to stay fit and competitive.

“In the 1970s, there was no Champions tour,” Harmon said. “My dad would show up not having played a competitive round in five years. Now, with someone like Freddie Couples, it enters his mind that he could win it.”

Miller Brady, president of the Champions tour, said the continued competition had indeed helped players’ longevity.

“These guys, unlike the generation before them, are much healthier into their 50s and 60s,” he said. “Look at Bernhard Langer; he continues to play well and win on the Champions tour.”

For some seasoned players, there is a feel about Augusta. They understand that the Masters has a rhythm all its own, although it may be different this year without the emotional support of fans.

“There are certain intervals in a round that if you get by them, they spur your confidence,” said Ben Crenshaw, who won the Masters in 1984 and 1995, when he was 43.

“The course goads you into trying certain things. In the tough areas, like Amen Corner, you always see special things happen.”

Larry Mize, who won the Masters in 1987, made the cut as recently as 2017 when he was 58. He said it was the design of the course that allowed older players to compete with younger players.

“There are many ways you can play that golf course,” Mize said. “You can bomb it and fly it up there. But a lot of holes you can run the ball up there, even on 18. It’s very long, but it’s still playable.”

NYTIMES, REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

THE MASTERS

Singtel TV Ch114/StarHub Ch 208, tomorrow, 2am