Tiger and Phil and Vijay on the weekend at a major. Experience matters at the Masters

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Tiger Woods had played only 24 holes in one tournament before he arrived at the Masters, the product of a 48-year-old body battered by time and injury that cuts into his practice and competition.

Phil Mickelson has finished better than 30th only once in five events on LIV Golf, notable because the circuit only has 54 players. Vijay Singh, who turned 61 in February, hasn’t cracked the top 10 this year again as part of the 50-and-older set on the PGA Tour Champions.

All three of those past Masters champions, along with two-time winner Jose Maria Olazabal, are around for the weekend. They have a combined 123 appearances at Augusta National.

Yes, experience matters.

Max Homa had the privilege of playing alongside Tiger Woods for two days, watching him grind out a 72 in ferocious wind to make the cut for a record 24 times in a row. Better than making the cut, Woods was in a tie for 22nd going into the weekend, seven shots behind.

“His short game was so good. I don’t think I can explain how good some of the chip shots he hit today were,” Homa said Friday. “He just … like, he understands this golf course so well, but he hits such amazing golf shots.”

Mickelson refers to Augusta National as a “spiritual” place for those who love the game, and at 53, the game loves him back. He closed with a 65 last year to be runner-up, just two years after he became the oldest major champion (50) at the PGA Championship.

Mickelson made the cut with two shots to spare, and all he could think about was making a move on Saturday for another chance.

Olazabal didn’t think he would be around for the weekend. In extreme wind on Friday, he played marvelously with three birdies and one bogey — and one shot into Rae’s Creek on the par-3 12th hole that led to triple bogey. His 73 put him at 6 over, a almost certain early exit.

But the wind kept blowing, the cut line kept dropping and the 58-year-old Spaniard made it on the number.

“I know that the chances are very slim for us to make the cut playing in these conditions and especially with these young players that hit the ball so far,” Olazabal said after he finished, but before realizing he made the cut. “I leave the grounds with head held high. I played really good golf two days.”

And now he gets two more.

It’s been that way at Augusta National for years, and it wasn’t just Jack Nicklaus at 46 becoming the oldest Masters champion in 1986. His final birdie that year came on the 17th hole, where there was some debate which way the putt would break.

He and his son, Jackie, determined it moved left-to-right. Nicklaus, however, felt it would turn back to the left toward Rae’s Creek at the end. He holed the putt, raised his putter and the television audience heard Verne Lundquist say, “Yes sir!”

Experience also matters at the British Open, but that’s more a style of play on links courses. Tom Watson nearly won at age 59, one year after Greg Norman had the 54-hole lead when he was 53. Distance isn’t quite as important when the ball travels so far on the ground.

For the Masters, there are nuances at Augusta National that can take time to appreciate. Perhaps that’s why Fuzzy Zoeller (1979) and Gene Sarazen (1935) are the only players to win the Masters in their first try.

Fred Couples was 50 when he shot 66 and took the first-round lead in 2010, and he was still in it until the very end, finishing sixth when Mickelson won his third green jacket.

Couples had a share of the consecutive cut record of 23 until Woods set the new standard. They are friends, and typical of Woods, his first order of business after his round Friday was to “text Freddie and give him a little needle.”

Couples didn’t make the cut this year, mainly because his back is so bad that he’s had to pull out of PGA Tour Champions events that he enjoys playing. This was to be Bernhard Langer’s final Masters until he injured his Achilles’ heal playing pickleball. He plans to return next year.

Langer was short off the tee even before the distance boom in golf. And yet there he was in the 2020 Masters at age 63, posting a 68 in the opening round and setting a tournament record as the oldest player to make the cut.

Langer played the final round with Bryson DeChambeau, who was some 100 yards longer off the tee. The German beat him by two shots.

Masters champions can play at Augusta National for life, and Langer was concerned in 2020 whether that was still the case. So he asked Chairman Fred Ridley if there was any unwritten rule about when to stop playing.

“He said that as long as we can stand upright and play golf, we are welcome to play,” Langer said. “And that we will all know when the time is right to stop playing.”

It wasn’t then. And by the look of how this week has gone, it isn’t now.


AP golf: https://apnews.com/hub/golf

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