In the wake of Tom Watson’s near miss at the 138th Open Championship at Turnberry, the Royal & Ancient are to review the age limit for past Open champions. The limit was reduced from 65 to 60 only two years ago and was designed to allow more players to qualify for the tournament on their merits and to increase the competitiveness of the tournament.
However, while few could have expected 59-year old Watson to be striding onto the 72nd hole as tournament leader, the fact that the last two Open championships have seen players in their 50’s still competing at the top of the leaderboard in the latter stages; in 2008 at Royal Birkdale Greg Norman was 53 when he led that tournament with nine holes to play, suggesting that veteran players can still compete at the top level.
After the drama which transpired at Turnberry, Watson’s appearance at the 2010 Open at St. Andrews would be his last under current age-limits, but had his eight-foot par putt fell then he would have earned himself a 10-year exemption. He could also qualify to compete in the British Open beyond 2010 if he finishes in the top ten at St. Andrews; he wins the 2010 British Senior Open or he qualifies through merit.
In the US, previous Masters champions are awarded lifetime exemptions for the tournament but are encouraged to stop playing when they no longer feel competitive while all three governing bodies of the other three Majors – Augusta National for the US Masters; The USGA for the US Open and the PGA for the US PGA – all issue special invitations each year. However, this is not an approach which would be favoured by the R&A as it could be argued that such invitations dilute the quality of the fields for championships of the quality of the Open and that exemption and qualification is a preferable method.
For Watson, coming so close to Sir Harry Vardon’s record at age 59 is something that no-one can take away from him, and despite being a year older he will be hoping to go one better at St. Andrews next year. He can also take consolation in a huge rankings jump which sees him jump from 1374 to 104th in the placings. Had he won, he would have entered the top 50.
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