Age must have been on Brad Faxon's mind last Friday when he came off the 18th green after his second round at Royal Lytham and St. Annes. "A 17-year-old is leading the B.C. Open!" he said, referring to Florida teenager Ty Tryon and the PGA Tour event that Faxon had won for the last two years. "Can you believe that?" To Faxon, who will turn 40 on Aug. 1, the news was unsettling. It was as if he had come home to find Tryon in his living room, wearing his clothes and reading bedtime stories to his three daughters, ages five through 12.
So you can understand why Faxon, who was already bracing himself for black balloons and black birthday cards, was caught by surprise on Saturday when his 48-year-old playing partner, Des Smyth, shot a one-under-par 70 and beat him by four shots, and why he might have been a little unnerved to find himself six shots behind a group of third-round co-leaders that included Bernhard Langer and Ian Woosnam, both 43. Life begins at 40? Not in golf. Forty is when your engine starts to sputter and sportier models start to pass you with alarming ease.
However, a new trend has developed, if you haven't noticed. Faxon got the has-beens going in January by winning the Sony Open in Honolulu. That warmed a hot water bottle under Mark Calcavecchia, who was facing his 41st birthday when he beat a stellar field the following week at the Phoenix Open. Calc's win, in turn, inspired Scott Hoch (cradle of '55), who won the ninth and 10th events of his 22-year Tour career, the Greater Greensboro Chrysler Classic and the Advil Western Open. And the B.C. Open was eventually won by 43-year-old Jeff Sluman, who now has five Tour victories, three of them coming after he turned 40.
Here's the thing about these old guys: They think they can still win majors. The Senior tour's Tom Kite, who will be 52 in December, tied for fifth at the U.S. Open in June, and former PGA champ Mark Brooks, 40, almost won the damn tiling, losing to Retief Goosen in an 18-hole playoff.
Was it that much of a stretch, then, for 44-year-old Mark O'Meara, who won both the Masters and the British Open only three years ago, to think he could prevail again at Lytham? "I've won this championship," O'Meara said after a second-round 69 left him four strokes behind leader Colin Montgomerie. "Maybe I can do well on some of those memories."
Ah, memories—there's a loaded word if you're fortysomething. Langer's storied past includes two Masters championships (in 1985 and '93) and the national title of practically every country in Europe, but going into last week he had never won the British Open in 23 tries. Woosnam, the 1991 Masters champ, was 0 for 19 in British Opens and winless on the European tour since 1997, and the sight of him nervously sucking on a cigarette outside the clubhouse last Saturday did not inspire confidence. "Obviously, when you're not playing well you get fed up running all over the world bashing your head against the wall," said Woosnam.
Smyth, a seven-time Euro tour winner, had a rosier perspective. The breezy Irishman has cracked the top 100 on the European money list only once in the last five years, but he went 18 under par in March to win the Madeira Island Open and become the oldest winner in European tour history at 48 years, 34 days. In 20 previous British Opens, Smyth had played on the weekend only five times, but there he was on Sunday afternoon, winking at reporters and teeing off with only two strokes separating him from the leaders.
"I suppose you're more at peace with yourself, not as driven," he said, trying to explain why the washed-up were cleaning up at Lytham. "When you're young, the desire is so strong that a couple of disappointments can crush you. When you're my age, you're used to seeing things go wrong. You don't discourage so easily."
Still, it was startling, when the dust had settled on Saturday, to see the leader board dotted with men who remember black-and-white television, Harold Macmillan and Janis Ian's At Seventeen. Some credited their success to the course, which rewarded accuracy more than power. ("This course isn't about brute strength," said Faxon. "You've got to think your way around, and hopefully you do that better when you're older.") Others pointed out that the old guys, with the exception of Smyth, had won majors and thus knew they could hold up under pressure. "Experience does help," said Nick Price, 44, whose third-round 68 left him a stroke off the lead and raised hopes that he might win a fourth major before giving in to senility. "But there's a lot of water under the bridge since I won at Turnberry seven years ago. My nerves are a bit more fragile."
Faxon, who had weekend rounds of 74-75 and finished 47th, followed the progress of the fortysomethings with more than passing interest. "When you're 27, you think it's never going to end," he said, "but this is my 18th year on Tour. There's a sense that maybe time is running out." Then he considered Langer and Price and Woosnam, who still have bounce in their strides, and O'Meara, who didn't win a major until he was in his fifth decade, and the future didn't look so dark.