GULLANE, Scotland – One of the magical things about golf is that it is not irrevocably a young man's game.
Unlike so many other sports, wrinkles and gray hair do not signal that your playing days are over. Folks in their 70s and 80s can occasionally shoot their age, or at least still enjoy a quality round well into their golden years.
Even on the PGA Tour, the old guys can occasionally beat the young guys.
But nowhere is youth less important than the ancient birthplace of golf. In recent years the British Open has become a Gray Panther rally: five years ago, Greg Norman led after three rounds at age 53; four years ago, Tom Watson lost in a playoff at 59; Darren Clarke and Ernie Els won the last two titles at age 42.
Nobody was seriously expecting Clarke or Els to win the last two Opens. Nobody was expecting Norman or Watson to seriously compete again in the Open. Yet those things happened, the years suddenly falling off their swings for a romantic, nostalgic four days.
That's why the old guys love links play – because it breeds hope that this year, it will be their turn. And rarely, if ever, have they loved it more than at Muirfield Thursday.
After the opening round of this year's tournament, they might as well rename it the AARP Invitational. Among those who are within three shots of the lead, held by Zach Johnson (-5):
• Mark O'Meara, age 56. Score: 67, one shot back. He won the Open in 1998, which is the only reason they let him in the field. But a guy who hasn't finished better than 60th here since 2004 cranked back the clock to the Clinton Administration days.
"One for the old farts," O'Meara said.
Actually, there were several other blows struck for the old farts.
• Tom Lehman, age 54. Score: 68, two back. His victory in this event came even longer ago than O'Meara's, in 1996. Since then Lehman has played in every Open, with one top-10 finish to show for it (in 2000). Last year, he missed the cut. Last time the Open came to Muirfield, he missed the cut. But Thursday, Lehman birdied the last two holes to finish 3-under.
• Miguel Angel Jimenez, age 49. Score: 68, two back. The stylish Spaniard has been a pretty consistent competitor in the 21st century, both on the European Tour and in the American majors. But 2013 has been a washout after breaking his leg skiing last December, and at 49 many thought the potbellied, pony-tailed Mechanic was more into cigars and wine than trying to win a major. Yet he roared out of the gate Thursday morning, getting to 5-under par on the front nine and leading the tournament for a while.
"One-under par is good," Jimenez said. "More under par, more good.”
Hard to argue with that. Just playing felt good after the long rehab to return to playing.
"I never think if my career is finished or not," Jimenez added. "I feel pissed off. How at 49 years old, you're going to break your leg? If you're going to break your leg at 30 years old, you could say, 'OK, I'm going to have a sabbatic year.' But at 49 you don't want to spend any sabbatic day."
• Todd Hamilton, age 47. Score: 69, three back. He appeared out of obscurity to win the Open in 2004, then promptly returned whence he came. Hamilton has been little more than a rumor in the last nine years, winning zero PGA Tour events. His record in the last 14 majors: nine DNPs, four missed cuts, and a tie for 60th in the 2011 U.S. Open. This year he's missed the cut in the only two PGA Tour events he's played.
"You can watch a guy in the NBA go 10-for-11, next night he's 1-for-15,” Hamilton said. "So I've had a lot of 1-for-15s the last few years."
Thursday was one of those exceedingly rare 10-for-11 days for Hamilton.
• Phil Mickelson, age 43. Score: 69, three back. It's easy to forget how old Lefty is because he's been so consistently competitive even into his 40s. But he turned pro 21 years ago. Mickelson pronounced himself a legit contender on Tuesday for his first-ever Open title, and did nothing Thursday to diminish his chances.
• Angel Cabrera, age 43. Score: 69, three back. "El Pato" waddles off radar for most of the year, then routinely reappears in contention at the majors. The Open has not been kind to Cabrera in recent years, missing the cut three years in a row and four of the last five, but he put himself into the fray with a tough-minded opening round.
The Old Guys Open has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The courses are user-friendly for experienced, veteran players – and when they watch their fellow geezers go low, the confidence can be contagious.
"Links golf is a little bit different than playing in the Masters," O'Meara said. "It's a little bit different than playing in the U.S. Open. It's a little different than the PGA. … I think experience plays a big factor in how guys play, and links golf is not just about power, where a lot of the game today is about bombs away, and hit the ball a long way and play it up in the air. Links golf is about creativity, shot process, thinking about where you need to land the ball.
"It's motivating to watch what Tom Watson did at Turnberry (in 2009). It's motivating to see what Greg Norman certainly did at Birkdale (in '08). Do I think I can? When I play like I did today, yeah, I think I can. I didn't feel like I was 56 years old out there; I felt like I was 32.”
There isn't a drop of water on the Muirfield course. But danged if Mark O'Meara and a bunch of other guys didn't find the Fountain of Youth out there somewhere Thursday.
And for a sport that is overly dependent upon Tiger Woods to provide its entertainment value, a Gray Panther rally was a compelling substitute for Tiger dominance.
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