Tom Watson's near win at the British Open at the age of 59 will inspire lots of interesting articles and books about sports performance and aging. He's an outlier's outlier, but will be a sports "everyman" for the rest of us fantasy athletes.
But the best over-50 athlete in the world is not Watson. I'd give that title to a woman who played tennis several times in Memphis.
Martina Navratilova won the 2006 U.S. Open Mixed Doubles when she was a month shy of her 50th birthday. She played at the Racquet Club of Memphis in exhibition matches in the 1990s, and won several international doubles tournaments after turning 45.
Mixed doubles isn't a marquee event, but to compete, much less win a major championship, in a world-class tournament at her age is phenomenal. Like Watson, she has as much mental discipline as physical strength, and she picks her spots. Watson readily admits he is no longer competitive at The Masters or U.S. Open, which are played on longer courses than the British Open, which Watson has won five times. His scores are so high he won't even play other majors even though he could get an honorary pass into the field. Navratilova can't compete (although I bet she could win a few matches) in singles or women's doubles, but her serve-and-volley game is ideally suited to mixed doubles.
Watson is a such a special story because he's serene and 59, the age at which you can begin drawing money out of your retirement account. Sure, the British Open is a short course and the weather was tough and Tiger didn't make the cut and all that, but if those were equalizers then Watson wouldn't have been the only old guy out there.
Watson's was a performance for the ages. He'll be shooting his age when he's 65, if not sooner. But I favor Navratilova because tennis demands more agility, stamina, and coordination than golf.
The "normal" age cut off for world-class performance is 40 or, in rare cases, 50. Swimmer Dara Torres was 41 when she won three medals in the 2008 Olympics. Ken Rosewall made the finals of the U.S. Open when he was 40, although he looked every bit of that when he got crushed in the finals by Connors. Gordie Howe played pro hockey when he was 50, and Chris Chelios is still playing at 47, although he was benched for most of the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
In baseball, Minnie Minoso and Satchel Paige supposedly played when they were 50, but the record book is not clear about their birth dates. Hoyt Wilhelm pitched until he was 48. In football, George Blanda appeared in an NFL game as a kicker when he was 48 and in several of them as a quarterback after he was 40. In racquetball, Rueben Gonzales still plays open pro events even though he is eligible for the 50-and-over. Who am I leaving out?
Locally, I'm only familiar with the sports that I play or watch. Runner Mike Cody was nationally ranked in the 50s and 60s and would probably still be ranked in the 70s if he hadn't seriously injured himself. In tennis, Judy Powell and Phyllis Taylor can play with any woman over 60; on the men's side, so can Al Yearwood, Jerry McEwen, and Glen Norwood. In the over 65s, my money would be on Allen Morgan. At 50, David Staples was the best volleyer among non-pros I've ever seen. In squash, Bob Williams could win the national over-70s next year if he put his mind to it. In racquetball, the late William B. Tanner did win some national over-50 titles. I'm confident that Memphis has its share of age-group champs in golf, swimming, and other sports I don't know much about. Who are they?
Age-group performance is a fascinating thing to observe. Because of my connections and certainly not because of my ability, I played doubles tennis for several years with former touring pros Mike Cahill, Terry Moor, and Sandy Mayer. At 40, they were all still better than any of the local club pros when they wanted to be. They could do things that made you shake your head in awe — Cahill's big serve and never-miss overhead, Mayer's volley, Moor's twisting topspin left-handed forehand. But by 50, only Mayer was still in good shape and playing occasional senior tournaments.
Golf is the only senior sport that seems to work as a spectator and television-friendly game. The Racquet Club has tried senior tennis under a couple of different promoters but it is simply too slow compared to open pro tennis, which is a hard enough sell these days. The decline in the abilities of John McEnroe, Jim Courier, Mats Wilander, and Roy Emerson was obvious to anyone who follows tennis.
At the amateur level, it's another story. Some of us who had puny or ordinary bodies at 17 are lucky enough to be blessed with good health and bigger and stronger bodies at 40 or 50 or 60. We have more time to practice and more motivation to get better. The star athletes of our youth have gone on to other things or fallen to the side because of injuries. I know several people who were better at their game at 45 or even 50 than they were at 25 or 30. Senior sports, in every sense, are a whole new game. Unless you're Tom Watson, that is.