Maybe age really is just a number.
It certainly seemed that way watching soon-to-be-sexagenarian Bernhard Langer lead the final round of the Constellation Senior Players Championship until the last two holes before being overtaken by 52-year-old whipper-snapper Scott McCarron.
It definitely seemed that way watching 61-year-old Maryland native Fred Funk dial up a 5-under-par 67 and a top-six finish in spite of a back injury that he said caused him to break into tears on the edge of one fairway and almost persuaded him to withdraw from the tournament.
Shame on those of you who imagined the word sexagenarian meant anything other than someone who is in his or her 60s. Langer was in the 60s for most of the tournament and might someday shoot his age in a Tour Champions event.
It was a weekend for the ageless in the two major individual sports. Roger Federer won the men’s singles title in straight sets at Wimbledon at the ripe old professional tennis age of 35, while 37-year-old Venus Williams made it to final in the women’s singles.
In this week’s regular PGA Tour event — the John Deere Classic — senior-eligible Steve Stricker shot a 7-under 64 in the final round to fall just a few strokes short of victory.
There are some comparable situations in team sports, of course. Former Oriole Nelson Cruz, who three years ago won the major league home run title in Baltimore while in his mid-30s, just made the American League All-Star team for the fourth time in five years and — at 37 — is tied with young Nolan Arenado for the major league RBI lead.
I would throw Michael Phelps into the conversation, but he didn’t win any gold medals over the weekend.
So, what is it that allows today’s older athletes to either turn back the clock or turn it off altogether?
It certainly helps that golf has a high-profile tour devoted just to players who are over 50 years old, but Funk believes there are factors that are common to all athletes, even if old age is a relative term depending on the sport.
“I think it’s all about working out and fitness and the people they have as nutritionists and trainers,” Funk said. “They’re playing at a truly high level and watching everything they’re doing and they’re just in phenomenal condition and they work extremely hard. The only way they can work hard and keep their skills up is to be nutritionally good and physically in great shape.”
There have been special athletes throughout history who have continued to excel beyond the normal shelf life of their sports. There just seem to be more now, which might also be product of the tremendous financial incentives that accompany success in just about every sport that gets decent television ratings.
Funk points to another big factor that is particularly important in golf.
“In golf, it’s the equipment,” he said. “It has helped the young and helped the old. The forgivability of the driver and how far the ball goes for the guys who have club-head speed. There is becoming a finer line between excellence. Guys aren’t that far from being the best and they aren’t that far from never being heard of, no matter what sport it is.”
None of this should take anything away from the ability of a golfer such as Langer to dominate a sport the way he has dominated senior golf. Sure, he’s fortunate to have a tour devoted to golf’s older stars, but he’s still beating the odds because of influx of younger talent on the tour.
“Other than Bernhard, there is a huge difference between the 50-53-year-olds and the 58s on up,” Funk said. “The stats show that. The window of opportunity is early, and you have to take advantage of that.”
Langer isn’t complaining, but he acknowledged after a very disappointing loss Sunday that age is his toughest opponent.
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“It definitely gets harder, of course,” he said. “I mean, you feel a little worse when you’re 60 than when you’re 50. You know, I’m going to be 60 next month and there are guys coming out that hit the ball quite a bit further. …There are about 20 guys out here that hit it past me quite a bit, so I have to make that up somewhere else. And there are going to be more and more guys coming out that hit it further as well.”
And Langer will just keep working harder.
”Bernhard Langer is my hero,” McCarron said. “He’s the guy I look up to. He’s the guy that works harder than everybody else. He’s always working out. He’s always practicing. He’s so diligent with his work on the golf course. When I’m at home I’m always thinking, ‘Oh, I don’t want to work out but I know Langer’s working out.’ So, I’ll go work out.
“I probably should just call him and ask him if he is, because if he’s not, I’ll keep sitting on the couch eating potato chips, but he is.”
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