Phil Mickelson and the Best Golfers over 40
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For most of us, golf is a game we think of as something we'll always be able to play.
If you've been at it for any length of time, you probably went through a period where you were hitting the ball further than ever without doing a thing other than buying better equipment.
Of course, the vast majority of people reading this never played the game competitively. At best, maybe you've competed in your club championship. If you have any years on you, you've probably dropped down a flight or two or signed up for an age-classified competition.
Professional golfers don't have that luxury before they've reached the age of 50 and may opt for the Champions Tour.
For most, their 40's are a kind of limbo. Can't quite hang with the young guns and can't go play with the old farts. Yeah, yeah, I know, "50 is the new 30." Maybe in some things, but even a driver with a head the size of a boxing speed bag can't make up for a decline in most everything that's grippin' and rippin' that club.
Then there are a handful of guys who've managed to defy the aging process. Or, at the very least, delay it long enough to still win regular tour events, maybe even a major.
Thirty of the 96 golfers teeing it up in the Masters on Thursday are 40 or older. Of the top-50 players in the current Official World Golf Ranking 10 are 40-plus-years-old and they're all at Augusta.
Let's take a look at those who could be around come Sunday, and one or two others who could stir things up for a day or two.
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With the slightest of apologies to Steve Stricker (who sits nine spots higher than Phil in the current rankings), there's no question who the best player 40 or over is these days.
The picture shows Phil holding the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am trophy he won less than two months ago. In the interim, he's grabbed a second and a fourth along with two "also ran" efforts. Even those, however, can be discounted.
When you've attained the heights that Tiger and Phil have, the only thing that becomes truly important are four tournaments called the Masters, the U.S. Open, the (British) Open Championship and the PGA Championship.
At the Arnold Palmer Invitational two weeks ago, where somebody named Woods reemerged on the golfing scene, Phil looked like a guy working on his game early on a weekday morning at his club or local course (with the exception, of course, of only being able to hit one ball, not half-a-dozen, from each spot).
When you've reached the pinnacle he and Tiger have, you can do that (oh, by the way, he still took home $49,800 for his 24th-place finish).
Since 2001, Mickelson has nine top-10 finishes and three green jackets for his efforts at Augusta. A fourth jacket would elevate him to very elite company. Only Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Arnold Palmer have won the Masters four or more times.
And let me ask you this: Do you know anyone, besides the other golfers and their fans, who doesn't want to see a final pairing of Phil and Tiger on Sunday?
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If the expression, "You're not getting older, you're getting better" has ever been true, it's true for Steve Stricker.
Just listen to these stats: With the Hyundai Tournament of Champions trophy Stricker collected (above) in the first week of this PGA season, he has won 12 PGA Tour events. From 2009, a year in which he turned 42, through 2011, Steve Stricker is the only man to win multiple tournaments each year. That's more than half his titles since turning 40!
Now for the bad news: Augusta has not been kind to Steve. He has managed two top-10 finishes in 11 Masters, but he's also packed his bags and left before the weekend five times.
He is steady, hitting more than three-quarters of fairways and greens in regulation so far this year, but steady isn't usually the formula for victory at Augusta. In 34 career rounds in the Masters, Stricker has gone lower than 69 only twice.
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Fred Couples is currently ranked 373rd in the world.
That's because, at 52, Freddie has chosen to go play the Champions Tour where, since he became eligible by turning 50, he has racked up seven titles in just 28 events.
But every April except for two since 1983, Freddie visits Augusta to continue a love affair that, remarkably, lasted four days for 23 straight Masters. In 2008 and 2009, Couples missed the cut. Was it over? Hardly.
The last two years, Freddie has finished sixth and tied for 15th. (An interesting aside: In 2010, Couples earned $270,000 for his sixth-place finish, the exact same amount he collected for his only Masters championship in 1992.)
In all likelihood, Freddie will be playing the weekend. But just in case he's not, try to catch him on Thursday or Friday so you can see his famous tee shot on Sunday of his championship year that somehow defied gravity and stayed up on the bank of the 12th green.
On this, the 20th anniversary of his Masters win, Couples returns to seek his 11th top-10 finish at Augusta. And wouldn't an improbable run at a second title have the older set struggling to get up off the couch and cheer him on one more time?
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Jim Furyk, the guy with the "kids, don't try this at home" swing, has continued to do pretty darn well with it.
He had turned 40 by the time he was named the PGA Tour Player of the Year in 2010, a year that saw him take home three titles.
Furyk flirted with a Masters title twice in his first eight visits, finishing fourth both times. Since 2005, however, he has been able to muster only one top-10 finish,, and that was a tie for the 10th spot in 2009.
That said, Jim seems to have his game in top form as he comes to Augusta. Three weeks ago, he lost a play-off to Luke Donald in the Transitions Championship and followed that up with an 11th-place finish in the Arnold Palmer Invitational before taking last week off to prepare for this, his 16th Masters.
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K.J. Choi will tee it up on Thursday with a streak of nine straight rounds in the Masters at par or better.
That streak has enabled him to register two straight top-10 finishes, giving him three in all in only nine visits to Augusta.
Choi turned pro in 1994, and golf fans have become accustomed to seeing him on the leaderboard, Just not often on top of the leaderboard. He has won once (the Players Championship last year) since 2008.
K.J. hasn't been better than 35th in his last four PGA events this season, but don't be surprised to see him you-know-where this weekend.
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Angel Cabrera is a guy who has become accustomed to booking hotel rooms at tournament sites for just two days.
Except, that is, for the second weekend in April in Augusta, Ga.
If there ever was a "horse for course" in golf, Angel's it at Augusta National.
And that said, the former champion, and first South American ever to win the Masters (fellow Argentinean Roberto DeVincenzo finished first in 1968 before inadvertently signing an incorrect scorecard and being disqualified) seems to be in his winning form.
In 2009, when Cabrera won the Masters in a playoff, defeating Kenny Perry and Chad Campbell, he missed the cut in both tournaments the two weeks before Augusta.
After finishing 18th in 2010, Angel missed the cut in three of the four tournaments leading up to the Masters last year. The result? A solid seventh-place finish that consisted of four sub-par rounds.
That brings us to this year. Results thus far: six tournaments played, four cuts missed. Looks like Angel has 'em just where he wants them.
A Couple of Guys Who Could Have 1 Day or 2, but Not 4
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A two-time past winner (1985 and 1993), Langer missed his first Masters after 27 straight appearances last year due to a hand injury.
He's been playing well on the Champions Tour this spring, and one or two good days would be no surprise.
Like Langer, Tom is also a two-time wearer of the green jacket.
Although he hasn't enjoyed quite the success he's had in the British Open (but then who has?), Tom has always found Augusta National to his liking.
Besides his two wins, he's finished second or tied-for-second three times and once made the cut in 21 straight Masters.
And also like Langer, the ball's almost always in the fairway.
While each may still be capable of hitting it straight, four days of solid putting, never a strong suit for either to begin with, would seem a virtual impossibility.