Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 18, 2012

On Sunday, The 40-Somethings Wind Up All Firing Blanks

Given the way the 2012 PGA Tour season has unfolded to date, the last pairing for Sunday’s final round of the Transitions Championship was a decided anomaly. Teeing off last were 41-year old Jim Furyk and 43-year old Retief Goosen, who were tied for the lead at 11-under par after three rounds. The Tour is busy marketing the golf’s youth movement whenever it can, with good reason. Steve Stricker won the season-opening Sony Tournament of Champions in Hawaii six weeks before his 45th birthday. But of the eleven tournaments played between that week and this, five were won by golfers in their twenties, and another three by players who were all of thirty-one. Since Stricker’s victory, the only other tournament won by a forty-something was the AT&T National Pro-Am, where 41-year old Phil Mickelson scorched Pebble Beach’s historic layout in the final round.

Yet in one sense it was not entirely unexpected that the two veterans were having a good week at the tough Copperhead Course at Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor, Florida. It’s clearly a layout where both are comfortable. Goosen is one of two men to have won the tournament twice, in 2003 and 2009, and is the event’s all-time leading money winner; and Furyk won the Transitions in 2010, when he posted a total of three victories and won the Tour’s season-long FedEx Cup point’s race. On the other hand both had to be a bit surprised to find themselves in the day’s final group. Goosen has been battling a bad back for more than a year, and the injury flared up this week, causing pain on almost every swing. Furyk in turn is trying to recover from the worst season of his professional career in 2011, when he failed to win a tournament and posted just four top-ten finishes.

Anyone hoping for a dramatic duel between the two was immediately disappointed. It was apparent from the start that Goosen’s back had finally gotten the better of him. He double-bogeyed the opening hole and was four over par after just five holes. Unable to make a full turn through the ball he was hitting shots wide right all day long. Furyk on the other hand ignited roars when his third shot from a bunker on the par-5 opening hole found the bottom of the cup for an eagle three. Two-under for the round after just one hole, it looked for a moment like the popular player with the looping swing might run away from the field and produce a statement round for the veteran generation of touring pros. But a bogey at the second doused any such thoughts. Furyk added two more birdies and a second bogey over the remainder of his round, finishing the day at the same 2-under mark for the round and 13-under for the tournament that he had when he walked off the first green.

With Goosen a non-factor and Furyk largely standing still, the chance for victory was there for the rest of the field. For much of the day it looked like the man who would seize that opportunity was another veteran, 42-year old Ernie Els. The Big Easy, who was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame last fall, hasn’t won on the PGA Tour since March, 2010, or anywhere else in the world since December of that year. His lack of a recent victory and position in the Official World Golf Rankings mean that after eighteen straight appearances Els is not yet assured of a place in the field for next month’s Masters.

It looked like that was all going to change when he ran off six birdies in the first twelve holes to move from eight to 14-under par and sole possession of first place. When his approach on the par-4 16th finished 4 ½ feet past the hole, Els was looking at a likely birdie and a two-stroke lead. But there is a reason why the much-loved Els has fallen so far, and that reason is his putting. The birdie putt that likely would have clinched the championship was wide left all the way. His 4-iron on the par-3 17th went way right, leaving a difficult pitch that Els did well to keep on the green. The resulting bogey dropped him into what was then a six-way tie at 13-under par. After Els missed the final green in the left fringe, his chip left him with another putt of just over four feet to save par and remain tied for the lead. Once again, the short roll never came close to finding the hole. For all golf fans who have admired the magnificent career of the big South African, it was a brutally painful twenty minutes to watch.

In addition to Furyk and Els, that six-way tie for the lead included one other 40-something, journeyman Ken Duke. Coming into this week the 43-year old had played 146 PGA Tour events in his career without ever tasting victory. When he too missed a short par putt on the 17th to fall out of the logjam at the top the Transitions added one more to that total.

So of all the 40-somethings who lingered and lurked throughout the final round, only Furyk made it into the four man playoff. Playing the 18th hole one more time along with Sang-moon Bae, Robert Garrigus, and Luke Donald, it was Furyk who was the farthest from the hole when all four reached the green in two, and it was Furyk who was first to miss his 40-foot (an appropriate enough length) attempt at birdie. After Bae missed a putt from twenty feet and Garrigus whiffed from seven, Donald’s 6-footer was never in doubt.

Among other things, Luke Donald’s fifth PGA Tour victory moves him back ahead of the idle Rory McIlroy to number one in the World Rankings, at least for the moment. That will no doubt rekindle the debate about the validity of the rankings since there are those who question how anyone can be ranked number one without ever winning a major. But in Donald’s defense, no other golfer has been more consistent over the past year. Last season he became the first player ever to win both the PGA Tour’s money title and the European Tour’s order of merit in the same year. His win at the Transitions marks the 18th time in his last 22 PGA Tour events that he has finished in the top ten. That level of play certainly ought to count for something. At age 34 he may be pushing the upper end of the Tour’s youth movement. But as one by one the 40-something veterans fell by the wayside, in the end Luke Donald was there to make sure that the Tour’s marketing campaign could keep rolling right along.

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