Golf's purgatory: Life after 40 on the PGA Tour
RIO GRANDE, Puerto Rico — The name popped from the caddie’s back, bolded in black against a white bib. That did little to help the volunteer tasked with taking scores during Wednesday’s pro-am, who was having a hell of a time deducing who was finishing on the 18th green.
“Campbell … Campbell … Campbell,” the Puerto Rico Open volunteer says, hoping repetition would summon his memory like a genie from a lamp. But there was no magic at Coco Beach, leaving the poor fella stumped. “Campbell,” he says once more. “Not to be rude, but does he play much?”
Seconds later, after parting from his amateur group and shaking the hand of the happy—if slightly perplexed—volunteer, Chad Campbell provides the answer, one he’s admittedly still coming to grips with.
“Playing out here,” Campbell remarks, “it just doesn’t happen that much anymore.”
Golf is a sport for all ages. That phrase should end with “just kidding” when it comes to the PGA Tour. The circuit is not so much inundated with youth as dominated by it, a revolution that has stripped the old guard of its armor.
“When I made my debut in 1998, there were maybe 30 full-time guys in their 40s out here,” says J.J. Henry, 44. “Now, there are barely any.”
To be clear, we are not talking about Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, or prior 40-and-older successes like Vijay Singh, Steve Stricker and Kenny Perry—all aberrations who prove the rule. Our focus is also not on those who labor, yearly, to keep their Tour cards. Theirs is a separate struggle.
Rather, this is about veterans who enjoyed solid, consistent careers, but careers almost entirely in the past tense. Their box scores are filled with “MCs” and they haven’t made the FedEx Cup Playoffs in forever. Which shouldn’t be odd. Sports are a meritocracy, and for older athletes, that’s synonymous with younger, faster, stronger performers taking their place.
Except golfers—most, at least—don’t retire. There are no farewell tours or jersey ceremonies or transitions into coaching. They just keep going, a notion aided by the parachute that is the PGA Tour Champions.
These two truths are not symbiotic. In fact they often clash, leading to a bizarre existence for those in their 40s. They are of a world that no longer needs them, but their next destination is too far to reach.
They are in golf purgatory.
“It’s the only profession in the world that, when you get to your mid-40s, you wish you were five years older,” Henry says.
PRIORITY, WITHOUT PRIORITY
Status on the PGA Tour is often simplified through the prism of winning an event, finishing in the FedEx Cup 125 or earning promotion from the Korn Ferry Tour. While those feats do earn membership, a player can grab a tee time without a card thanks to the Tour’s priority ranking.
The priority ranking is essentially a tool for helping events fill out their fields. However, it’s much more dynamic, and more complicated, than the conventional routes toward getting into a tournament. There are medical extensions, major and minor, sponsor exemptions and top 10s and ties from the previous week, career bounties for 20 tournaments wins and money earned.
At the bottom of the list are players beyond the FedEx Cup 125, former tournament winners (of any variety), and players who have made a minimum of 150 cuts. In short, old guys.
Ideally, a tournament won’t have to dig too deep, signaling the best have committed. But there are 49 official PGA Tour events this season, and most players average between 23 to 27 starts per year. That’s a hard math that leaves certain tournaments scrambling to round out their fields, particularly those played the same week as World Golf Championships and the Open Championship (known affectionately as opposite-field or alternate events) that experience a special kind of madness. The top 60 players are competing in the WGCs and Open, with the next 10 to 20 that didn’t qualify often opting for rest. Slotted to host 120 to 130 participants, opposite-field events need someone, anyone, to play, which is why they have become the Tour’s version of Old Timers’ Day.
“Our schedules are predicated by the priority ranking, the reshuffle,” John Rollins, 44, said. “We don’t know when we’ll get the call, but the alternates are a safe bet.”
There are other events vets can bank on: Pebble Beach in the opening months, a sprinkling of tournaments between the U.S. and British Opens, the RSM Classic to close the season. Rollins says the Houston Open, in its first year as a fall tournament, unexpectedly dipped down the list, a fact that didn’t sit well with organizers. Whatever pizzazz these tournaments lack, the veterans aren’t complaining.
“You have to take the opportunities when they arise,” says Robert Allenby, 48. “If you don’t, someone else will.”
Which raises a question: Shouldn’t these spots be used on Korn Ferry Tour players, a platform to showcase fledgling talent, instead of those no longer active? Sources associated with tournaments contend that that opportunity already exists in the form of sponsor’s exemptions, and that it would be wrong for the Tour to turn its back on its long-term members.
However one feels about this response, what’s clear is a veteran’s perks aren’t many. The warhorses know that’s not the perception, but it is their reality.
The opulent endorsements are no longer there. Major equipment manufacturers mostly ignore them, giving them a small deal if anything at all. An active Tour player, even of the rank-and-file variety, commands five figures for an appearance fee during a tournament week; for veterans, these outings are often a repaid favor or to maintain a relationship. Two older players said they feel judged in the locker room, the eyes of their younger brethren telegraphing, “What are you doing here,” making the job they’ve known for decades feel distant.
“Most of the guys we grew up with are on the Champions now,” Henry says. “And when you see them winning, you think, ‘Boy, that seems welcoming.’”
A few vets said while tournaments will go beyond the call to appease younger players (in hopes they’ll keep coming back to the event), they are treated with indifference. It was not lost on the elders that six of the last (re: worst) Puerto Rico pro-am times featured some of the oldest players in Rollins, Allenby, D.A. Points, Freddie Jacobson, Chris Couch and Brendon de Jonge.
“Seriously, I won this event, how am I in the last group?” Points asked an official as he waited for his group 80 minutes before sunset (they were only playing nine). “Who did I piss off to get this?”
It was said in jest … but not really.
A veteran’s year lacks rhythm. You could feasibly be playing three times in four weeks, then go months before another start. And because of the aforementioned priority ranking, you’re likely on call for one of those tournaments in between. The interstitials are a puzzle most have yet to solve.
“To me, that’s the hardest thing,” Campbell says. “It’s tough to find consistency. You can hit the range as much as you want, play as much as you want. And you do, to stay as sharp as possible. But it’s not just the same.”
Rollins asserts says this unknown is the biggest disadvantage to losing your Tour card. “The younger guys are uber talented, no doubt,” Rollins says. “But I’ve found the best way to success out here is getting the reps, week in and week out. Even if you’re missing cuts, being in this environment will do more for your game than pounding balls all hours of the day. It gives you a mentality that can’t be replicated.”
Their practice methods, processes they’ve honed for years, now have to be recalibrated to their new—and lower—standing in the pecking order. Complicating matters are other variables: changes to the game, to their physicality, to their priorities.
The first point is self-evident. Distance has always been an asset in professional golf. Most believe it’s now a prerequisite.
“It’s a different sport, it’s more power driven,” Henry says. “Shot-making is important, but a long drive makes that easier to do that. And courses are set up to reward aggressiveness now. When we were getting started, it was about patience, picking your spots. The new set-ups favor the young.”
“The importance of [distance] far outweighs what it was 20 years ago,” Points says. “Being short or average was not an issue. Now we are chasing speed more than we have, and keep in mind, no one’s body is the same in their 40s as it was in their 20s. We’re trying to hit two curveballs at once.”
Bringing us to the next obstacle. To a man, all the older players acknowledged, thanks to advancements and education in nutrition and training, golfers are in better shape than ever before. This applies to them—Allenby looks like a triathlete, while Rollins and Points are guys you’d want in your corner in a bar fight—but especially so to the current ruling class. Moreover, they face physical and vitality limitations the younger players don’t.
“What is considered good shape for us is wildly different for what is good shape for a guy starting out,” Rollins said.
Most have had injuries of some kind, hampering what they can do, on the course and in the gym, or having specific stretches or training to prevent or nurse their ailments that subtracts valuable time from preparation. Even those in relatively good condition have more pain management now than 10, 15 years ago.
“You see it most with wrists and backs,” Allenby said. “You don’t have to go under the knife to be dealing with something. I was talking to Stuart Appleby, and he can’t play a full 18 holes anymore. His is not a one-off story.”
However, by far the biggest obstacle is, well, life.
Because of the lack of regular play, 40-somethings start branching out into other endeavors. Rollins has begun broadcasting for PGA Tour Radio. Henry says he has a few “neat” projects lined up. Allenby and his wife are tinkering with the idea of a documentary. Restaurants and camps were common responses, even exploring new recreational passions. Vastly different from those under 35, their focus on a singular pursuit in a sport that requires nothing less.
“You see these other avenues, for the first time in a long time, and your interest in piqued,” Rollins says. “Then there are the other obligations that come with age.”
Speaking of which, players in their 20s are mostly single, not a care in the world. The plus-40 crowd has wives, children, the waves of responsibility that come with both. That is obvious, but can’t be overstated.
Campbell says he was gone from home for nearly 17 straight years, making what he has now with family special. Henry has two teenagers and gets a bigger kick out of watching them play than he does with his own game. Both Henry and Points call it a balancing act, while Allenby describes it as an epiphany: What once mattered doesn’t matter so much anymore.
“Last year I thought about my old routine,” Allenby says. “Gym in the morning, golf, more golf, back to the gym, crash. You do it because you want to succeed at your craft. Then you realize all those hours in the gym, at the course, traveling … that’s time you don’t get back. So what you have left, you cherish, you don’t let it go.”
Which begs the question: Why keep going?
A FIRE THAT WON’T DIE
Obviously they don’t all enjoy the same level of status or financial security. Nevertheless, there is a strong commonality. Whatever clutter exists, at their core, they have an addiction, and it cannot be pacified. “This is all we’ve known,” Rollins says. “Even with side gigs, it’s our first love, all we wanted to do.”
So not getting to play when they want, or as much as they want, is a mix of adjustment, irritation, acceptance. They want to be at the majors and the WGCs, at Riviera and Muirfield Village. They speak of not knowing what they had once upon a time, the grind blurring their appreciation.
A player describes it as a divorce, your wife moving to a new man … only your wife allows you to go on a date every few months with her. It was said in fun, but wrapped in pain.
“You can’t just flip the switch off," Campbell says. "After all the disappoints and falls, sometimes this game gets so frustrating you wish you could. But you only want it more when you wake up.”
If there is an upshot to this stage of their career, there’s a newfound sense of perspective. It arrives with age, sure, but also with loss.
“I’ve lived a charmed life, to have a tee time out here for 20 years,” Henry says. “It’s been good. But now, not knowing what comes next until [the Seniors], you’re thankful for every chance.”
“The blinders aren’t up as much, you see how lucky you are to do this,” Rollins says.
But make no mistake, they are not ceremonial players, and this is no victory lap. They are still chasing that demon, even if they know it will never be caught.
“If we didn’t think I could hang, I wouldn’t be out here,” says Campbell, who had a T-9 last fall at the Houston Open. “All it takes is one good week and you can get going.”
As the sun begins to disappear over the Puerto Rican palms Wednesday, Allenby manages to work an approach—into the breeze off the Caribbean coast, from a lie that’s deader than dead—onto the 11th green. His group cheers, his caddie incredulous. Allenby is stoic.
“Got to make the most of it while you can,” he says.