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Age is the rage

Posted: Wed July 15, 1998

In a world where we all seek so to stay young, being good at sports, even as we grow old, is the ultimate facelift. Long before Viagra, there was golf.

Larry Holmes, age 48, is going to fight George Foreman, age 50. Jack Nicklaus, age 58, almost won the Masters. He will not be at Royal Birkdale this week, at the British Open, passing up a major for the first time in more than 38 years, but then, he immediately went out and shot nine-under in the seniors' tournament this past week, showing those 50-year-old kids a thing or two.

  nickalus.jpg Even at age 58, Jack Nicklaus is hardly putt-putting along.    (Robert Beck)
Old guys play this golf tour of theirs every week for millions in prize money. Likewise, the old tennis players have their own caravan now, with Jimmy Connors acting like a naughty, middle-aged Peter Pan who had to grow up, sorta. Now, too, the old women's tennis players have a tour, cleverly designed so Chrissie Evert and Martina Navratilova always have to meet each other. No we can't quite have it the way we were ... but we can try and make it the way it was.

And if we're politically correct now, and we don't call 'em "old-timers" anymore, we get by with euphemistic names like "seniors" and "classics" and "legends."

Moreover, many of the best players—what we used to dismiss as "veterans"—continue now in the real major leagues well past the time when they were supposed, by natural law, to be finished. Nolan Ryan was setting strikeout records in his 40s. Carl Lewis and Linford Christie won Olympic long jump and sprint gold medals in their 30s. The last NBA playoffs was essentially a case of one 35-year-old man on Chicago outplaying a 34-year-old man and a 36-year-old man on Utah.

Now in the movies recently, there has been a backlash from having old fogeys like Jack Nicholson and Harrison Ford and Michael Douglas cast opposite love-interest actresses almost half their age. We sense how foolish that is, how artificial ... how, above all, so undeserving it is for silly old graybeards to be assigned the hearts of the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow.

But if an older athlete can outplay a kid head-to-head on the field, or if a war baby can still shoot par or pack a knockout punch, then, by God, that's different. That's empirical accomplishment. That's walking the walk—and in a population growing older all the time, it's also becoming genuine role-model stuff.

It's not, either, as if sports were turning old. On the contrary, children are mastering games at younger ages all the time, and a few sports—notably tennis and figure skating and gymnastics—are suffering for being too much the province of shallow, insipid teeners.

But, still, there has been an attitudinal sea change—both among athletes and spectators—for we no longer accept it as gospel that the prize must go to the young person at the peak of physical performance. No—especially us older types believe that the diminution of physical skills can be more outweighed by canniness and conniving. Beyond that, I can sense the belief that physical prowess does have a longer life than we used to credit it. Yes, youth must still be wasted on the young, but no, youth need not be wasted on sports. Not anymore.

Ah, to be a sprightly 55 again and teeing it up at the British Open.

These commentaries, which appear each Wednesday on National Public Radio's Morning Edition, are posted weekly by CNN/SI.

Related information
Previous Frank Deford Commentaries
British Open Main Page
Alan Shipnuck's golf mailbag
Inside Golf with Jaime Diaz
Teeing Off: Bullish on the British
Nicklaus announces he'll leave Tour after 2000
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