Golf

Envisioning the characteristics of the 2015 U.S. Senior Open winner

Bernhard Langer of Germany has won the U.S. Senior Open before. Could this be his year again?
Bernhard Langer of Germany has won the U.S. Senior Open before. Could this be his year again? AP

And the winner of the 2015 U.S. Senior Open (probably) is …

An injury-free golfer between the ages of 50 and 53 who played well enough to remain exempt on the PGA Tour through his late 40s, maintains a strong work ethic and has good natural flexibility, if not ideal fitness, a consensus suggests.

Or Bernhard Langer, who at 57 seems to defy historical data and Father Time.

The past eight Senior Open winners have been 51, 52 or 53. That includes Langer, who won in 2010 at 52.

“Bernhard still plays and practices like he’s in his 30s,” said Woody Austin, 51,. “He’s doing everything exactly the same.”

Langer and the 140-plus pros at Del Paso Country Club this week benefit from the fact golf stands virtually alone among major American professional sports in that:

▪ There’s a senior division.

▪ One that’s lucrative (purses are roughly 30 percent of those on the PGA Tour; Colin Montgomerie took home $630,000 for winning last year’s Senior Open).

▪ One that fans will pay to watch.

There are anomalies among auto racing, basketball, baseball, boxing, football, hockey, horse racing and soccer (see chart) where athletes over 50 compete at the highest levels of their sport, but it’s rare. Tennis has a circuit for 35-and-over male former stars.

If Langer wins this week, which would be no surprise since he won the Senior Players Championship two weeks ago, won five times (two majors) last season and has been first or second in Charles Schwab Cup points five times in the past six years, he will be a month shy of Allen Doyle (57 years, 11 months) for oldest Senior Open winner.

Since the inception of the Champions Tour in 1980, 85.4 percent of the 1,049 tournament winners have been between 50 and 55. Statistically, the biggest decline in victory rate is between 55 and 56. Neither Tom Pernice, 55, nor Michael Allen, 56, has been a high-profile player during a long pro career. But each fits the mold for the successful Champions Tour player in that each peaked in his 40s, transitioned without a competitive break from the PGA Tour, and remain highly motivated and healthy.

The golf ball may not know their age, but the monitors that measure club-head speed give an indication, and the machines surely suggest this would be a good week to get a national championship on their résumé.

Pernice, a two-time PGA Tour winner, has won four times on the Champions Tour and finished the past two seasons in the top 10 in Schwab Cup points.

“All of us realize we are (no longer among) the best players in the world, but we are players with a huge competitive drive, and once we are inside the ropes and they call our name, we are trying to excel and compete,” Pernice said.

Allen failed to win in 369 PGA Tour starts but has won seven times on the Champions Tour with 12 top-10 finishes in senior majors. He made it through PGA Tour qualifying school eight times before sticking on tour at 42 – he believes he may be the all-time-leading Q-school money winner.

The four-round senior majors (other Champions Tour events are three rounds) take a greater physical toll on him than they used to, Allen said, but he had last week off and is raring to go.

“I hit my stride in my late 40s when many guys were wondering, ‘Do I still want to do this?’” Allen said. “I’m still hungry. I played for a living for most of my career while the big names played for championships. That’s what I feel I get to do now.”

While some big names are not willing to put in the work they used to, and therefore aren’t as successful among the 50-and-over crowd as fans might expect, Langer, a two-time Masters winner and former world-ranked No. 1, is not among them.

“They told me (the 50-and-over tour) was relaxing,” Austin said. “That was such a big lie. It’s more laid-back, but there are a ton of guys who still take the game seriously. Bernhard is a prime example.”

Steve Pajak: (916) 326-5526.

Ageless Warriors

GOLF

  • LPGA Tour: Beth Daniel and JoAnne Carner are the oldest winners at 46; there is a 10-tournament LPGA Legends Tour, started in 2000, where the qualifying age is 45; a U.S. Senior Women’s Open debuts in 2018.
  • PGA Tour: Sam Snead was the oldest winner at 52 in 1965; two of this year’s U.S. Senior Open competitors (Craig Stadler at 50 in the 2003 B.C. Open and Fred Funk at 50 in the 2007 Mayokoba Classic) are among six players over 50 who won on the PGA Tour; Woody Austin, also in the field this week, was 49 and the eighth-oldest winner when he won the 2013 Sanderson Farms Championship.
  • Champions Tour: There have been 22 winners over 60, the oldest Mike Fetchick at 63; Tom Watson, in the field this week, is the oldest senior major winner at 61; Hale Irwin, the all-time Champions Tour leader in wins at 45, was 61 when he last won in 2007.

AUTO RACING

In NASCAR, there have been 22 wins by 11 drivers over 50 – the oldest being Harry Gant at 52; Morgan Shepherd was the oldest (72) to start a Sprint Cup race, doing so in 2014; Al Unser is the oldest Indianapolis 500 winner at 47; John Force is 66 and still winning drag racing titles.

BASEBALL

Julio Franco and Jamie Moyer were 49 when they retired as the game’s poster players for longevity; many players have contributed until about 45, the historical age threshold.

BASKETBALL

The Kings’ Andre Miller, 39, is the oldest active NBA player; Robert Parish was 43 when he retired after playing in more games than any NBA player; 22 players competed in the NBA after turning 40; fans probably still would pay to watch Michael Jordan, 52, who retired 12 years ago.

BOXING

Bernard Hopkins became a heavyweight champion in 2013 at 48.

FOOTBALL

Quarterback-kicker George Blanda retired from the Raiders at 48; cornerback Darrell Green is the oldestNFL defender at 42; two NFL kickers currently are over 40.

HOCKEY

Gordie Howe played the last of his 26 NHL seasons with the Hartford Whalers in 1980 at 52.

HORSE RACING

Bill Shoemaker won the Kentucky Derby at 54; many jockeys ride effectively in their 50s.

SOCCER

Kazuyoshi “King Kazu” Miura was the oldest goal scorer in Japan’s pro leagues at 48; former U.S. national team goalkeeper Brad Friedel retired from the English Premier League at 44; Preki, coach of Republic FC, was Major League Soccer’s MVP at 40.

TENNIS

Ken Rosewall won majors at 35, 36 and 37, accounting for the three oldest major wins; he also won at age 43, as did Pancho Gonzales, making them the two oldest regular-event winners; Billie Jean King is the oldest women’s winner at 39.

Steve Pajak

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