Something To Prove
Five prominent champions who turn 40 in the next few years seek to buck a tour trend and win another major title
Almost 12 years after the moment of impact, Tiger Woods' 12-stroke victory at the 1997 Masters is recognized widely as the earthquake that changed the landscape. Beyond its historical reverberations, Woods' performance heralded the arrival of pro golf's first dominant player since the early 1980s, when Tom Watson ruled the fairways and Jack Nicklaus lugged plenty of game past his 40th birthday.
A decade and a half of top-tier parity would follow, along with the common perception that Tiger wiped it out in a single week, which really wasn't the case. It took Woods 2½ years to win his next major. He won just one tournament of any size in 1998 while remodeling his swing with coach Butch Harmon, and just three times in 44 starts from May '97 to May '99.
Several prominent players made serious hay in those two years. Ernie Els claimed his second U.S. Open title with some clutch golf down the stretch at Congressional. Justin Leonard won a British Open and a Players Championship. And let's not forget David Duval, who piled up 11 victories during Tiger's fallow period and unseated Woods atop the World Ranking in the spring of '99, just a few weeks after Young Eldrick fired caddie Mike (Fluff) Cowan for becoming too much of a sideshow.
Seems like a long time ago, doesn't it?
Els turns 40 in October -- eight months after fellow South African Retief Goosen, eight months before Phil Mickelson, with whom he shares numerous career parallels. Mickelson and Jim Furyk were born 35 days apart in the spring of 1970. The baby-faced Leonard is now 36, his three kids all 5 or younger, a familiar familial trend among five major champions who are healthy, wealthy and wise enough to identify one of the game's most notorious sucker pins: middle age.
Maybe it isn't life's toughest foe, but it has its moments. "The same things that made them such good players are what will motivate them in their 40s," says Billy Andrade, 44, a four-time PGA Tour winner who probably deserves some type of lifetime achievement award for maximizing his abilities for as long as he has. "You get older and move into other things, your kids grow up, or maybe you go through a bad stretch personally -- there's motivation everywhere. You play poorly, and you want to get it back. You play well, and you want to keep it going."
There were veterans aplenty at the Merrill Lynch Shootout earlier this month, two of whom in particular (Kenny Perry and Woody Austin) have played better on the back nine of their careers than on the front. If Vijay Singh is Exhibit A in terms of defining success on the tour after 40, Perry isn't too shabby as Exhibit B, a true homebody who would rather mess around under the hood of a 1969 Camaro than play 18 holes.
"Justin, Ernie, Phil, Jim and Goose all have young children," Perry says. "It tears your heart out to leave home when they're little kids, and that makes it hard to create a balance. Once they grow up and are out of the house, like mine are, you're able to refocus and rededicate yourself."
But enough on the second-graders. Every traveling dad into his third night at a Hampton Inn feels an emotional tug from absent offspring. What Goosen, Els, Furyk, Mickelson and Leonard must really cope with is a jolt of statistical reality: Singh is the only player in the last 10 years to win a major championship after his 40th birthday, having defeated Leonard (and Chris DiMarco) in a playoff at the 2004 PGA.
By any measure, Singh is a freak. His 22 post-40 victories make him the winningest such player of all-time -- nobody else comes close in the modern era. The accomplishment is even more astounding when you consider he did it during the Woods Dynasty, when there simply haven't been as many trophies available, all while hitting balls the way elephants eat peanuts. If the human body only has so many golf swings, Singh was given the allotment of a half-filled movie theater.
Just one of those 22 was a major, however, which takes us to the archives. Since the Nicklaus Miracle at the '86 Masters and Raymond Floyd's triumph at the U.S. Open two months later, there have been 90 majors played. Just seven have been won by guys older than 40. That Nicklaus and Floyd did it consecutively is amazing, and the six who have done it since -- Hale Irwin (1990 U.S. Open), Tom Kite (1992 U.S. Open), Ben Crenshaw (1995 Masters), Mark O'Meara (1998 Masters and British Open), Payne Stewart (1999 U.S. Open) and Singh (2004 PGA) -- all have at least 10 career victories.
So there are no flukes. "I feel like I'm ready to compete again in the majors," says Leonard, who has climbed more than 100 spots in the World Ranking (to 23rd) since hitting a competitive rock-bottom in spring 2007. "I'm not saying I'm going to win all four, but I can win any of the four, and that's not something I could say five years ago."
Whereas Goosen, Els, Furyk and Mickelson were born 16 months apart, Leonard is two years younger, the shortest hitter of the bunch and, in relative terms, the only one entering 2009 with his career on an upswing. He finished eighth in the '08 FedEx Cup standings, missing just one cut in 25 starts, had eight top-10s and picked up his 12th career victory in Memphis.
Playing in his first Ryder Cup since 1999, Leonard holed more big putts than anyone and partnered with Hunter Mahan to earn 2½ points in three team matches. "If you did a case study on players who had [multiple] children in a short period of time, I think the evidence would show that it definitely throws a wrench into your golf game," Andrade says.
For Leonard it was more like an entire toolbox. Two months into 2007 he ended his six-year relationship with Harmon and returned to longtime swing coach Randy Smith, which isn't to say Butch was the problem. "Trying to find time for three kids and still put the necessary work into my game is something that took me a while to figure out," says Leonard, who credits another resurgent veteran for assisting his own Texas-size comeback. "What Steve Stricker has done the last couple of years, to see him get back to being a world-class player again, is something that really inspired me."
Goosen, meanwhile, has been unable to regain the form that made him a two-time U.S. Open champ and one of the world's steadiest players in the first half of the decade. Ranked fourth at the end of '05, the Goose has flown due south since -- he managed just two top-10s in 18 starts this past season and will begin '09 ranked 45th in the world. His contemporaries may not be coming off career years, but Mickelson, Els and Leonard all won tournaments in '08, while Furyk wound up fifth in the final FedEx Cup tally.