Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 25, 2011

PGA Veterans Feel The Heat

As the PGA Tour playoffs got underway today at historic Plainfield Country Club in Edison, New Jersey, much of the focus was on the young rising stars of golf who have elbowed their way onto the stage over the past couple of seasons. Nick Watney, who just turned 30 earlier this year, leads the FedEx Cup points race going into the four tournaments comprising the playoffs. Close behind him in 3rd place is 26-year old Webb Simpson, winner last week at the Wyndham Championship. He in turn is followed in 5th position by 25-year old Keegan Bradley, the stunning winner of the PGA Championship, the season’s final major.

Among the 125 golfers who qualified for the first playoff event are a host of other young players whose names are becoming increasingly familiar to fans. The list includes Australians Adam Scott and Jason Day, Venezuelan Jhonattan Vegas, and Americans Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson, and Bill Haas. Masters winner Charl Schwartzel of South Africa qualified for the field in 21st place, but elected to sit out this week, though he plans to tee it up in the remaining three playoff events. He and U.S. Open winner Rory McIlroy, who is ineligible for the playoffs because he’s not a PGA Tour member, are the most notable young stars not walking the fairways of the Donald Ross layout with its rollercoaster greens.

In a fortuitous coincidence that has made the Tour’s marketing staff look prescient and no doubt pleased Commissioner Tim Finchem, a healthy chunk of this season’s marketing campaign has focused on the game’s youth movement.

But down at the other end of Plainfield’s practice range, at least figuratively speaking, there is another group of golfers trying to recapture some lost magic and avoid being pushed aside by their younger competitors. These are the veteran golfers, their names and faces immediately recognizable to their legions of fans, who find themselves far down in the points standings after a season best described as somewhere between “disappointing” and “lost.”

One year ago Ernie Els entered the playoffs leading the points standings on the strength of two early season victories and all-around steady play. This year the 41-year old needed a tie for 30th place last weekend to capture enough points to move from 126th to 118th and be able to play at the Barclay’s. Given the playoffs’ format of steadily declining fields, Els will need another good week to be able to move on to the 100-player Deutsche Bank Championship. But Ernie’s problem all season has been his putting, and the principal defenses to scoring at Plainfield are the course’s eighteen classic Ross greens with their sloping contours and false fronts.

Fellow South African Retief Goosen, starting in 101st place, is similarly in a play well or else situation. Winless since 2009, the 42-year old has been plagued by injuries this season and has teed it up in only 14 events. While his two U.S. Open titles are testament to his ability, at the moment Goosen is just a guy trying to get into next week’s field. He’s doing so without a lot of confidence, having acknowledged in an interview that his low place in the standings is a source of self-doubt.

Then there is Padraig Harrington, the pride of Ireland. Less than a week shy of his 40th birthday, Paddy hasn’t won a PGA Tour event since his 2008 PGA Championship victory capped a remarkable run of three major titles in the space of 15 months. He finished in a tie for 47th last week, just barely good enough to climb from 130th to 124th place and squeeze into this week’s field by the slimmest of margins. Harrington has gone through a well-publicized breakup with his swing coach, and may well be in the midst of trying something new at just the wrong time.

Of course not every veteran is struggling. Vijay Singh, less than two years shy of eligibility for the Champions Tour, seems finally recovered from assorted injuries that have slowed him since he won the FedEx Cup in 2008. He starts the playoffs in 36th place. Ever-popular Phil Mickelson, now more than twelve months north of age 40, starts in 6th place on the strength of a win in Houston earlier this year and his surprising runner-up performance at the Open Championship in July. Then there is 44-year old Steve Stricker, the very definition of a late bloomer with eight of his eleven PGA Tour wins coming since his 40th birthday, including two this year. Stricker begins the playoffs in 2nd place, with many giving him the best chance among veteran players to take home the $10 million bonus for winning the FedEx Cup.

But the veterans at the back-end of the standings offer the more intriguing stories, for they will be the ones playing this week with a sense of not-so-quiet desperation. Two years ago Health Slocum, the 125th and last man into the playoffs, won the Barclays to catapult up the points list, eventually finishing in 8th place in the final FedEx Cup standings. That’s a reminder that in professional golf one good week can turn a mediocre season into a fine one. It’s also a game where the inevitable decline brought on by age can be defied for far longer than most other sports.

It’s way too soon to dismiss Els or Goosen or Harrington, or other struggling veterans. Stuart Appleby started 113th in the standings and opened the playoffs with a round of 81. Justin Leonard finished the Tour’s regular season in 126th place, missing the playoffs altogether. Had he shot just one stroke better in last week’s tournament, he’d be playing in this one. All of these pros still have plenty of game.  But the stage is only so big; and with more and more young players crowding onto it, the Tour’s struggling veterans surely must know that the clock is ticking, and that time is not on their side.

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