Friday, June 18, 2004
Let's hear it for the oldies
SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. - The U.S. Open is open for receding hairlines, grandpas and eaters of bran. It's available to 50-year-olds driving souped-up golf balls and Lincoln Continentals. Bounce a baby on the knee you just had 'scoped. It's not your father's Open.
Well, yeah, maybe it is.
Fifty is just a number, same as the 66 Jay Haas shot Thursday. While most of the alleged best and brightest youngsters were treating Shinnecock Hills with more respect than it deserved, the 50-year-old Haas, father of five kids, three of whom are at least 20, was taking the place to school.
"I guess I never really thought, 'I'm 50. I should be doing this or not doing that,' " Haas said. "The same people who asked me last year how I was playing so well at 49, now want to know how I'm playing so well at 50."
The golf clubs are rocket launchers. The golf balls are rockets.
Players and fans can gripe all they want about how the new equipment is forcing obscene changes on wonderful old golf courses. Forever, Jack Nicklaus has lectured on how the muscular-ization of the ball is ruining golf. The fact that until recently Jack was hitting the ball farther than he did 20 years ago wasn't much discussed.
At the Open in 1986, 32-year-old Haas needed a driver, a 3-wood and a 7-iron to reach the green at the 540-yard 16th hole. Thursday, he got there with just the driver and a 3-wood. "That's all equipment. I'd be foolish to think I'm as strong as I was at 30," he said.
You don't have to be a 28-year-old workout nut to vie for our national championship. Just let your equipment do the heavy lifting.
On a leaderboard as listless as any at the John Deere Classic - honk if you've heard of Kris Cox - Haas is the unlikely leader. Last year, it was Tom Watson, at age 54, shooting a 67 at the Open on Thursday. This year, it's Haas and 54-year-old Tom Kite. Kite shot a 71 Thursday, a stroke better than would-be Open king Sergio Garcia.
"The equipment has changed so much in the last five years, it's not even funny," Kite said.
Haas is laughing. He's playing the best golf of his life, even if he hasn't won since 1992. He credits his short game, mainly his putting, but also the new, juiced clubs. "I'm consistently longer, from driver to pitching wedge," Haas said. He's hitting 8-irons for the same shots he hit 6-irons 10 years ago.
Technology has kept Haas just close enough to the younger players that his intangibles still matter.
The U.S. Open rewards the player who plays young and thinks old. You can't go after an Open course. You can't be thinking three-run homer. You have to play small ball. When that perfect-looking tee ball bounces sideways and lands in a foot of rough, you need to say the Serenity Prayer. That's easier when you're 40 or 50 than when you're 25.
Haas is so old, his son is playing here. His 22-year-old son, Bill, graduated from Wake Forest last month. Jay Haas has played the Open 25 times. On Thursday, he did nothing spectacular, unless you count the 40-footer he rolled in for birdie at No. 17.
But he did everything well enough and avoided the dumb mistakes and the concentration lapses that can kill you at this championship. "I don't think it's an upset," he said. It would be if he were the last man standing Sunday.
At some point, age does matter. Nerves fray, muscles fatigue from four days of walking the Open plank. Will it happen to Haas? Ray Floyd remains the oldest Open champ. He was 46 when he won here at Shinnecock in 1986. But ol' man Haas bears watching.
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