There are advantages to being old.
Early bird specials and senior discounts, obviously. License to say whatever you want. And, on days when gusting winds turn Augusta National into a diabolical deathtrap, a shortcut to the top of the leaderboard.
While several of the young guns were caught up in the carnage Thursday at the Masters, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Fred Couples put their many years of experience to good use.
At 1 under, Mickelson was one of just 11 players below par while Els was a stroke behind him. And look at the crew lurking just above par: Couples, at 1 over, and Larry Mize at 2 over and Bernhard Langer at 3 over. All of them 50-somethings with green jackets.
“The wind is going to magnify your misses and a lot of the guys that aren’t familiar with this course … will miss in the wrong spot and end up making big numbers,” Mickelson said. “Because I played here so many times, I just kind of know where to go.
“I might miss it big,” the three-time champion added, “but I’ll miss it in the right spot and I’ll have a good chance to salvage par.”
Now, it’s too soon to say Jack Nicklaus’ record as the oldest Masters champion is in jeopardy. Couples, 57, and Langer, 59, have both made runs in recent years — Langer played in the second-to-last group last year — only to fade at the end. Plus, Charley Hoffman seems to be playing a different version of Augusta National than everyone else.
But there’s no disputing that it’s an advantage to have an encyclopedia’s worth of institutional knowledge of the Masters.
“Fred just highlighted so well how, if you know this course, you can get away with stuff,” said Paul Casey, who played with Couples.
Augusta National is, to put it politely, quirky on its best days. At 7,435 yards, it will humble all but the biggest hitters. And what the length doesn’t take out of you, the greens will.
The mounds and ridges of the greens make for breaks that are simply confounding, often starting in one direction before switching course. It’s not uncommon to see a player standing with his back to the hole, looping his putt in a direction that appears to make no sense whatsoever only to see the ball go into the hole as if it was on a track.
As if that’s not enough of a challenge, the greens are lightning fast. Miss a putt at most places, and the ball will roll a foot past the hole. Here, that foot becomes two feet. Or 12, with the ball looking as if it’s on an ice rink instead of a golf course.
Because of those peculiarities, there are places you want to be on the course — and places you most definitely do not. But it takes time — years, usually — to figure all that out.
And since the Masters is the one major tournament played at the same course every year, knowledge is power.
“Well, I knew a few putts, yeah,” Couples said with a smile. “I think a lot of stuff helped me just kind of figure out where to miss a shot and hit a shot.”
It can also be a great equalizer.
Mickelson, 46, and Els, 47, can still hold their own off the tee, but Couples acknowledged that his “Boom Boom” days are over. But on a day like Thursday — and probably Friday, too — what he lacked in length was made up for elsewhere.
“If it was calm and nice, a 73 or 4 would be not a very good score,” Couples said.
Or, as Mickelson said, “Anything under par, I would have taken from the start. There are a lot of mistakes that can take place out there with the winds.”
It’s often said that age is only a number. But it made for some good ones on a tough day at Augusta National.
By Nancy Armour
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.