AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Scenes of 70-somethings trudging up and down the hills of Augusta National, sometimes using their clubs as canes and struggling to break 90, is a Masters tradition no more.
Most of the old-timers have faded away, relegated to the par-3 tournament or ceremonial duties. They’ve been done in by a supersized course that’s just no fun to play for a senior citizen.
When the Masters begins Thursday, there will be four teenagers in the field — and only one golfer as old as 60. He happens to be the turn-back-the-clock player who almost won the British Open last year, Tom Watson.
Turns out, the guys in the green jackets came up with a gentle shove out the door that worked even better than a letter: 7,435 yards.
“This a young man’s golf course, by golly, since they added all the length to it,” said 58-year-old Fuzzy Zoeller, who called it quits after last year’s tournament. “I retired because I got to the point to where I didn’t feel like I was competitive. And if you’re not competitive, what the hell are you doing out there?”
Sixty-seven-year-old Raymond Floyd was the latest to step aside, announcing this week he’s had enough after 45 straight appearances. He didn’t even bother with a couple of farewell rounds — calling it quits right then and there.
“It was something that I toyed with pretty much all year as to whether I would play or not,” he said. “I didn’t want to go out and embarrass myself, or play the best I could and make a whole lot of putts so I could shoot in the 70s.”
This Masters will start with ceremonial tee shots by Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, who combined for 10 green jackets and 95 Augusta appearances during their long, brilliant careers.
Nicklaus stopped playing five years ago at age 65, the age former Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson proposed as the cutoff for past champions to give up cherished exemptions that were supposed to last a lifetime.
Johnson even sent letters to three members who hadn’t been competitive in years — Gay Brewer, Billy Casper and Doug Ford — to revoke their playing privileges. That in turn sparked a backlash from the more prominent ex-champs, players such as Nicklaus, Palmer and Gary Player, and Augusta dropped the idea.
Palmer stopped playing anyway at age 75, slyly remarking that he didn’t want to “get a letter.” Nicklaus faded away the following year, and Player finally stepped aside last year at 73, closing his record 52-year run at the Masters with an 11-over-par 83.
“Everything shall pass,” he said Wednesday after playing in the par-3 tournament with Nicklaus and Palmer (and shooting 1-under on the mini-course, he was quick to point out).
Player insists that he won’t miss playing at Augusta.
“I had a great feast 52 times,” he said. “You win it three times, you finish second three times, you make the most cuts in a row. I’m just so grateful that I had the opportunity.”
Watson, who missed a chance to become the oldest major champion in golf history when he lost a playoff to Stewart Cink at Turnberry, is the oldest player in this year’s field, having turned 60 last September. A two-time Masters champion, he hasn’t made the cut at Augusta since 2002.
Ben Crenshaw is the oldest of the rest at 58. Seven other players have qualified for the senior circuit: Craig Stadler (56), Mark O’Meara (53), Ian Woosnam (52), Sandy Lyle (52), Bernhard Langer (52), Larry Mize (51) and Fred Couples (50).
“I’m playing pretty nicely the last year or so,” Lyle said. “I think I’ve got eight, nine more years in me.”
It’s hard to see anyone hanging around as long as Player on this course, which has been lengthened by 450 yards in the last decade. In all likelihood, the days when someone in their 60s could make the cut — Tommy Aaron was 63 when he became the oldest player to contend on the weekend — are pretty much over.
No one wants to put themselves through what Billy Casper did in 2005.
After sitting out three years, he returned for a farewell appearance. Seventy-three and barely able to make it around the course, he quit after shooting 106 in the opening round, which would have been the highest score in Masters history if he had bothered to turn in his scorecard.
Ford played at Augusta until he was 78, but dropped out after the opening round three straight years. He packed away his clubs after just one hole the last time he went out. Still, he was angry when Johnson tried to cast him aside, going so far as to boycott the champions dinner one year.
But Ford got over his bitterness, and current Augusta National champion Billy Payne stressed that it’s up to each individual golfer to decide when enough’s enough.
“We want them to continue as long as they feel they can be competitive,” Payne said. “And just remember that the younger guys now are going to be older guys at some point. So we are always going to have our share of those.”