Sport

Wednesday 21 February 2018

Augusta's old brigade keep pace with baby boomers

Jordan Spieth celebrates after chipping in for a birdie from a bunker on the forth hole at Augusta
Jordan Spieth celebrates after chipping in for a birdie from a bunker on the forth hole at Augusta

Oliver Brown

It was testament to the democratising power of golf that Jordan Spieth, aged 20, could go mano-a-mano in his first fight for the Masters title with 54-year-old Fred Couples.

But then such stark juxtapositions of youth and experience abounded on this extraordinary final-round leaderboard: orange-clad glamour boy Rickie Fowler (25) facing off against that unashamed roue Miguel Angel Jimenez, a man twice his age.

Then came Lee Westwood, Thomas Bjorn and Jim Furyk, all the wrong side of their 40th birthdays.

Augusta National might notoriously have excluded on grounds of gender and race, but where age is concerned this manicured Arcadia could scarcely be more egalitarian.

Couples, in particular, never ceases to amaze as the Masters' hardy perennial.

Since he turned 50, the 1992 champion has finished inside the top 20 four times in succession, before his familiar surge here.

Do not let that grooved, languid swing deceive you, though: the ever-popular figure is stricken these days with back pain, requiring intensive physiotherapy just to compete.

But something in a golfer now ranked 521st in the world, playing his trade at obscure senior tour stops in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, is transformed as soon as he comes in sight of Augusta's white clapboard and pink dogwoods.

"I'm not here just to play golf," Couples said. "I love the course and I would say I'm in pretty darn good shape."

So would many of his contemporaries. Paul Azinger, of the same vintage as Couples, joked yesterday that he was "not buying" his friend's long-term lumbar problems as he watched him take birdies at the first two holes.

"That's the best back I've ever seen," he said.

And yet since the unforgettable Masters of 1986, when Jack Nicklaus became the oldest major winner at 46, the impression has remained that age should be no barrier at Augusta.

Statistically, the record books might not be in favour, given the 16-year drought for 40-plus winners that followed Mark O'Meara's triumph in 1998. But an air of promise still lingers for the elder statesmen among the loblolly pines.

VAGARY

The crucial factor is local knowledge. Couples purports to have memorised every vagary of Amen Corner, every extreme break on the infernal Sunday greens; so too Sandy Lyle, the winner in 1988, who last night completed his 100th competitive round at Augusta at the age of 56.

The memories of Nicklaus' thrilling back-nine march to victory 28 years ago carry an enduring resonance for the veterans' club.

Lyle, asked why he is minded to keep competing here despite the passing of the glory years, replied: "You just never know in this game. They had crossed Nicklaus off as getting too old when he won his last Masters. Clearly I'm a bit older than that now, but I'm strong enough and long enough off the tee. Just look at what Jimenez is doing."

Indeed, the Jimenez story is perhaps the most rousing of all for the battle-scarred brigade.

The Spaniard's epicurean tendencies are well known – the fondness for a rich Tempranillo, the ever-present Cuban cigar, the refusal to play the part of a gym rat.

But in his sixth decade, he has seldom looked better. His brilliant Saturday 66 at Augusta, vaulting him into contention in the early exchanges last night, was a reflection of all the quirky calisthenics he does to keep himself flexible and elastic. His six-under-par round was only the third 66 registered by a player over 50, matched that of Ben Hogan in 1967 and Couples in 2010.

With previous two top-10 finishes at the Masters, Jimenez exuded the most refreshing confidence.

"If you are 50 it doesn't mean that you cannot play well," he reflected. "I'm still moving, I'm still flexible – the main thing is I'm doing what I like to do in my life and I'm enjoying it completely."

He discovered this week that he has acquired a cult status in the US, after the 20 European Tour wins that have made him such a fixture on the continent. ESPN have rewarded him with a starring role in their satire of the popular Dos Equis beer adverts, with the narrator saying of Jimenez: "He buys two seats for every plane – one for him, one for his cigar."

While his challenge threatened to fade on the front nine yesterday, as he dropped two strokes in his first six holes, Jimenez was still landing his share of blows for the seniors.

His wry grin for the cameras, when he put his drive at the first into a fairway bunker, was expressive of his invigorating attitude.

"At 50 I hit the ball longer than ever," he argued. "When I want to play fade or draw, high or low, it still happens. I'm competitive.

"This is my 26th year on tour. And probably some people say, 'That's so many years, it has got to be hard on the body'. No, I love what I'm doing, and I hope I'm still in the same condition for another 25. I'm not going to get bored of myself."

Augusta, likewise, holds a continuing charm and fascination for him. While 63-year-old Tom Watson insists that it has become too long for him to handle, Jimenez's bizarre warm-up routines – stretching and contorting, cigar clamped firmly between his lips – have enabled him to keep pace with Bubba Watson and the boomers.

"It's funny," he said. "Sometimes I'm watching that on the video, and I'm laughing myself. It's nice, it's bueno. But you know what the main thing is? I never get injured. It helps to move the joints. At 50, it's hard to be here if you're not working out somehow."

He and fellow over-50 Couples, however, were last night pursuing far loftier ambitions than simply being here. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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