I'VE ALWAYS saidyou can't put a price on experience," Kenny Perry declared at the PlayersChampionship, a golf tournament masquerading as an old-pros' reunion. Perry hada point. There were times last week when the leader boards looked as if theyhad been copied off the direct-mail lists of retirement counselors. Yoursecond-round highlight, a 60-foot birdie putt on the island-green 17th,belonged to an emeritus captain of the European Ryder Cup team, BernhardLanger—a quinquagenarian. Your tournament runner-up, Paul Goydos, was a43-year-old former substitute teacher. And then you had Perry himself: a big,amiable Kentucky church deacon with a second-childhood love for fast cars.Perry, who turns 48 in August, led this year's Players after 36 holes andplayed with Goydos in the last pairing on Sunday; and if you were surprised bythat, you shouldn't have been, because Perry tied for third at the Players asrecently as 2004. But Perry, too, has begun to hear his favorite songs inelevators, and sometimes he had trouble reading the fine grain on the Stadiumcourse greens. "I see better with a lot of light," he explained."Like, I can't read this paper right now, but you put a flashlight orsomething real bright on it, I could read it fine."
Some of us acceptthe inevitable and get bifocals. But no matter how you looked at it, it wasclear that "experienced" golfers had as good a chance as any to wingolf's so-called fifth major. (Fred Funk was 48 when he won the Players in '05,and Stephen Ames was 41 in '06.) Even so, it was startling to see younghotshots like Adam Scott (27) and Anthony Kim (22) struggle to keep up withveterans who normally would be doing sit-ups in preparation for the Championstour. "Who would have predicted us to be in the last group?" Perryasked on Saturday evening. "I mean, seriously, you have all the kidsplaying so well...."
There wereseveral theories to explain the rejuvenating properties of the Players. Goydossingled out the firm greens, saying, "The guy who putts well from five to15 feet is probably going to be successful." (Goydos had 11 one-putt greenson Saturday.) Another hypothesis was that the Stadium course favors theseasoned plodder over the callow pro. "I've been out here 22 years,"Perry said after his opening rounds of 68 and 70. "I know where to hit it,know where to miss it." Finally, there was the admittedly romantic notionthat the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon was correct in placing the Fountain ofYouth somewhere along the I-95 corridor. Believers pointed to Langer, who beganthe week with back, groin, knee and shoulder pain. After inhaling the swampvapors, however, Langer (who'll be 51 in August) shot 72--67.
If only theending had been as good. Langer and Perry looked their ages on Sunday andhanded in back-nine scores of 40 and 43, respectively. (They finished togetherin 15th.) Goydos did much better, but he needed the e word to defend his choiceof a pitching wedge in the playoff. "My experience," he said, "toldme it's not time to try to dink a nine-iron." So Perry was wrong. You canput a price on experience. At the Players it was $684,000—the differencebetween first and second place.