If Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal can still win majors, why can’t Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson?
Practically ancient in the world of tennis, legends Federer and Nadal reasserted themselves in 2017. And that’s a sport where no one is supposed to win majors in their thirties.
With both Woods and Mickelson seemingly healthy, 2018 will tell us if modern science, coupled with status and experience, will present us with fortysomethings battling twentysomethings for major glory.
Golf has typically honored late-career runs by those of a certain vintage, but not since Hale Irwin at Medinah in 1990 have we seen a genuinely resurgent late-career win. That suggests the golf gods have decreed this is a young man’s (and young woman’s) game. Yet watching Woods lash away in December’s Hero World Challenge with speed, torque and a carefree aggressiveness we haven’t seen from him in years, there is an inclination to think time hasn’t completely run out on the 42-year-old who ushered in today’s power-friendly playing style.
Coming off a fourth back surgery in April, the last a vertebrae fusion, Woods finished T-9 in the 18-man Hero World field. The swing and swagger appeared back. There didn’t seem to be anything the Big Cat couldn’t do.
“I’m excited the way this week has gone,” Woods said afterward. “I’m excited with not only the competitive rounds but also all the functions at night. I still got my training in. It was a very good week.”
What about Mickelson, the shockingly flexible 47-year-old who is still one of the top three players from 100 yards and in? He seems unfazed by psoriatic arthritis and a pair of hernia surgeries. Who’s to say Lefty can’t ride the momentum of a Presidents Cup 3-0-1 week to right a ship that was understandably disabled by some pretty big distractions? Say, FBI agents showing up at your place of work.
Before the 2017 Masters, Mickelson indicated he believes age is but a number.
“I don’t think much about age right now,” he said. “I think that guys’ careers are being extended a lot longer because of the way fitness has taken over. And it’s not like I’m a pillar of fitness, but I spend a decent enough time to be able to physically perform and practice and play the way I’d like to play.”
Young gun and reigning PGA Tour Player of the Year Justin Thomas made it clear. It would be foolish to count out Woods or Mickelson.
“The golf ball doesn’t know how old you are,” said Thomas, 24. “There’s no reason that because you’re a certain age or you’re this or that, it doesn’t mean you can’t do something.”
As with tennis in the 1990s, golf has shifted to an era where power has consistently prevailed over finesse and extreme accuracy. The days of old guys using smarts and experience could be lost to the Trackman-infused, technology-supported aggressiveness that Thomas and most other young players employ. But then Jordan Spieth comes along and spoils the argument with his savvy strategy, great iron play and brilliant short game to hang around some weeks, while completely dominating others.
If all goes well in 2018, these contrasting approaches will deliver us generational crossroads.
Thomas rightly believes Augusta National is the most likely spot for Tiger and Phil to surface atop a major championship leaderboard. The Masters has provided many instances of old sages chasing down the youngsters – Hogan and Nicklaus to name two. Nicklaus’ 1986 championship was one for the ages. Then there was the 58-year-old Golden Bear with a stunning final-round charge in 1998. A 53-year-old Hogan made waves in 1966. The precedent has been set.
“There’s a reason that Freddie [Couples] played well there for so long and Bernhard Langer and Larry Mize have had great rounds there the last couple years,” Thomas said. “It’s just such an advantage in knowing the course; the more you play it, it really just makes a world of difference.”
In Thomas’ developmental years on the PGA Tour prior to his breakout 2017 Player of the Year season, he often argued with his golf professional father about the role of experience. Maybe a bit caught up in the youth-superiority hype, Thomas was often surprised to see how old-fashioned experience could make up for talent deficiencies.
“The thing is, all these veterans they have so much experience and they know the places so well to where they are always going to be there if they are putting the work in and their game’s good,” he said.
But as Thomas notes, “you just don’t know if the motivation is exactly the same” for some.
We will find out soon enough if Woods and Mickelson are as motivated as Federer and Nadal. For golf history’s sake, let’s hope so.
(Note: This story appears in the January 2018 issue of Golfweek.)