By Melanie Hauser, PGATOUR.COM Correspondent
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Has it really been eight years since Mark O'Meara played here?
Indeed it has and the defending Constellation Energy Senior Players champion -- and oldest player in the field at 54 -- brings some interesting perspectives to THE PLAYERS.
He remembers the old days -- his first PLAYERS was in 1981 when it was played across A1A -- and chuckles about trying to explain how the TPC played early on. And in late March, no less.
"Trying to explain that to young kids today ‑‑ when you stood on the first tee if you hit it left, you might have a yard or two off the left side of the cart path and then it was Palmetto palms and shrubs, and the golf course was wild,'' O'Meara said. "They've cleaned it out.''
Made a slew of other changes too. But O'Meara, who had five top 10s here in 23 tries during his PGA TOUR career and hasn't finished out of the top 15 on the Champions Tour this year, can still compete against the kids. Even if they do hit it past him.
"It's just amazing,'' he said. "I'd say I probably drive it ‑‑ at times in the last year and a half, two years, I've hit the ball as well as I've ever hit it in my life, probably even better than when I won both majors in '98.
"But in saying that, a lot has to do with the rest of the players in the world, you know, the European players, the foreign players, the young players, the college kids. I played with this young man a week ago last Monday at Lochinvar there in Houston, Cory Whitsett, who's a freshman, 19‑year‑old kid from Houston that's going to Alabama. He hits it 40 by me, left‑handed player.
And I reckon after playing 18 holes with this young man, I'm like, okay, I couldn't hit it like that when I was 19, I promise you. Not only is he long, he's got serious game. ''
And this week he faces a field of young tough players.
". . . Even though age factor becomes a factor in the golf game, the golf ball doesn't know how old you are down there. It sits down there kind of waiting to be hit. So sometimes when you're out there practicing, even though I'm 54, I hit it and I'm thinking, even though I'm 54 I feel like I hit it just as well as I did when I was 38.''
And, he grinned, what other profession affords you the chance to compete at a high level at 54? "We're lucky as heck,'' O'Meara said. " There's no question about it. But I do believe you're right. The kids are gone, a little more mellow, but that doesn't take away from the nerves and the wanting to try to win coming down the stretch. That's still the same. "