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The Open 2019: Sorry, champs, but time's up

Leaderboard Open 2019

First, a disclaimer.

I’m as sentimental as they come. Jack Nicklaus waving farewell on the Swilcan Bridge in 2005 (then holing out for birdie); Gary Player kissing the 18th green at Augusta in 2008; even Robbie rejoining Take That – I got a little dewy-eyed at them all.

But there’s a time and place for nostalgia. A major championship is neither, far less the greatest of them all: The Open Championship.

That’s why it's time for change.

At present, if you win the Claret Jug at any point in your career, you are eligible to keep playing in the event until you’re 60, a perk that was itself reduced from 65 in 2008.

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The feeling then, according to former R&A chief executive Peter Dawson, was that too many spots were going to players who had no realistic chance of winning.

“We wanted to make sure there were as many places as possible available to younger golfers who, if they are in their primes, will have a better chance at competing,” said Dawson.

The same year, Greg Norman, then 53, took the 54-hole lead in the championship at Royal Birkdale and threatened to become the oldest major winner in history. He ultimately finished in a tie for third.

Tom Watson 2009

The following year, at Turnberry, 59-year-old Tom Watson went even closer, losing out in a four-hole play-off to Stewart Cink.

The R&A’s response was to introduce a new five-year exemption for any former winner finishing among the top-10 and ties. In other words, if you’re 56 and post a top-10 at The Open, forget about calling it a day at 60. You’re in 'til you’re at least 61.

A lovely touch but one that exposes a glaring flaw: an over-appreciation of past champions.

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The solution is fairly simple.

Reduce the past champions’ exemption to 50 years of age. Take a decade off.

The R&A revised it before out of necessity. Now, it needs to do so again.

This year, three 50-plus former winners played using the exemption: Darren Clarke, Paul Lawrie and Tom Lehman. Miguel Angel Jimenez, 55, also got in after winning last year’s Senior Open – another exemption that ought to be scrapped, but that’s another story. (He finished 13-over, by the way)

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Clarke and Lawrie have both turned 50 since last year’s championship. By virtue of the change proposed, this would be their final year, unless they qualify by some other means (and there are many means by which they could). Nothing against either man. I've got a huge amount of respect for both. This is in no way personal. But neither's around for the weekend.

Lehman, meanwhile, finished 12-over and near the bottom of the leaderboard. Sixty last March, this will likely be his final appearance in a championship he won 23 years ago. He hasn’t made a cut since 2013, when he finished in a tie for 58th. He has only two top-20 finishes – surely a fair barometer of a player’s competitiveness – since 2000, the most recent of which was nine years ago.

Tom Lehman 2019 Open

However, because of an entirely arbitrary upper age limit, the public’s final Open memory of him will be of an ageing champion welling up after trying to push water uphill for 36 holes. That’s not the way any player should be waved off, much less one whose name is on the Claret Jug.

The simple fact is that the best players in the world are now far younger and the courses are far longer than when Lehman, and those who have gone before him, were competitive. How are they meant to contend when Father Time is pulling against them?

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Simple answer? They’re not. That’s why senior tours exist. They arose out of an acknowledgement that, beyond a certain age, golfers can’t compete with the average man in the field, never mind the top players, any longer. The bar was set at fifty (and, frankly, you could make a case for revising that down to 48 or 45 now, too).

All this this does is expose the flaw in The R&A’s well-intentioned but misplaced generosity.

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Don’t like it? How about this for a compromise: if you win The Open beyond the age of 40 – as Darren Clarke, Ernie Els and Henrik Stenson have all done in the last decade – you get an extra ten years  on your exemption.

In Mickelson’s case, he was 43 when he won at Muirfield in 2013. With this asterisk, he’d continue to be able to play until he’s 53, unless he wins again before that exemption runs out, in which case it resets and starts again.Fair, no?

If you’re competitive, it doesn’t matter how old you are. But if you’re not, you’re making up the numbers. I’m not saying it’s selfish. I'm saying it's wrong.

Open Leaderboard

Also, and this matters more than you might think, a ‘play until you’re 60’ exemption is wildly off-brand.

The Open might be an event steeped in traditions but, in recent years, it has made many significant strides to modernise its look, from fresh new branding, an excellent dive into social and other ‘new’ forms of media, partnerships with dynamic broadcasters like Sky Sports, and an enlargement of its global footprint through The Open Qualifying Series. It is responsive to change, and must continue to be.

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Still unconvinced? Think of it this way. Jordan Spieth won in 2017 at the age of 23. Besides anything else, that earned him a 37-year exemption into a major championship. Thirty-seven years. Does that not seem too much?

What if a flash-in-the-pan, one-win-wonder was to win at the age of 20 in the next few years (as is entirely possible given how young the game is becoming)? Does that player they really deserve a 40-year free pass to play in one of the game’s four most prestigious events, with all of the prize money, world ranking points and everything else that affords them?

You may disagree but I think that’s far too generous.

In almost every other respect, professional golf agrees that 50 is a fair line in the sand between the main and senior games. Why should majors be any different?

A sentimental fool is, after all, still a fool.

Your thoughts?

Do you agree with Michael McEwan that the exemption for past Open champions should be reduced from 60 to 50 years of age? Leave your thoughts in our Comments section below.

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