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Will You Ever Shoot Your Age?

BUY MORE GAME. Not so long ago, many aging golfers felt it was important to learn (or improve) a draw in order to compensate for a decline in distance. Now, however, you can maintain or add length simply by switching to the right new clubs and ball—if ever there was a seller's market, it's purveying clubs to seniors seeking to regain lost length. (Count me in: I recently purchased a new TaylorMade driver, which has definitely given me a few more yards. I've also replaced my three-iron with a nine-wood, which is friendlier and doesn't require as much power to get the ball up and away.)

Furthermore, choose your ball carefully. Avoid highcompression ones that require swing speeds beyond what you can muster and favor those with relatively low rates of spin that tend to fly farther than high-spin balls.

And if shakiness around the greens is adding shots to your score, consider a long or belly putter. I've been using a long one for several years, after suffering through a terrible bout of the yips, and the change has helped enormously. An added benefit is being able to stand straighter when putting, which places less strain on an aging back.

RETIRE EARLY. In the first few years after I retired in my mid-sixties from my job at The Wall Street Journal, my handicap fell about three points to a seven, barely three strokes above its lowest level in my late twenties. The reason was simple: I had a lot more time to devote to my game and, despite my aging, this paid off in lower scores. I still spend a lot of time on the practice tee and putting green and play four or five days a week, weather permitting. In any event, I'm reasonably certain that my handicap would be a good deal higher were I not retired.

And it will help if you retire to a climate that allows you to play year-round. If that's not the case, at least plan your travel so as to get in some rounds when playing at home is impossible. Often snowbound at home in New York, I try to head south for a month or so each winter.

With the extra time I now have, my effort to lower my scores includes more hours on my treadmill in the garage and more stretching and weight lifting. I'm careful, however, not to overdo any of this. When I began the lifting, I was unrealistically ambitious and ended up with tendonitis in my left arm that lasted for several months and was only cured through less golf and zero lifting for a while. Which leads us to . . .

AVOID INJURY. For those whose golf talent may be fading with age and in any case falls well short of a touring pro's, a vital part of shooting one's age seems remarkably simple yet is frustratingly difficult to accomplish as the years pile up: Stay healthy. Playing golf, with the twists and strains that the swing entails, carries a considerable risk of injury, particularly in one's senior years. Especially vulnerable is the back, but the shoulders, knees, hips, hands and feet are frequent trouble spots as well.

Good genes, of course, may make keeping in shape and avoiding injuries easier. Before shooting his astonishing sixty, Walter Morgan told me, he didn't "do much in the way of working out." It may have helped, however, that he comes from a family of athletes, including his cousin Joe Morgan, the Hall of Fame second baseman.

For those of us less fortunate, there's little question that working out can help ward off injury and keep the swish in one's swing. Marty Boehm, a physical therapist who worked with pros on the Senior Tour, found that golfers tend to lose about 1 percent of their body flexibility each year after the age of thirty-five, which in turn increases the risk of sprains, muscle spasms and joint injuries. To counter this, he urged "stretching, stretching and more stretching," applied through exercises that run the gamut. He also recommended regular aerobic workouts to raise the oxygen flow to muscles and thus reduce the chance of a pull as a senior golfer tires late in a round.

Even so, injuries can do you in. At seventy-five, my frequent companion on the links, Dick Smith, hoped to shoot his age for the first time this year. With a handicap in the midsingle digits at a tough course near Charleston, South Carolina, Dick had worked out regularly and recently shot several sub-eighty rounds. But a painful back strain that he suffered while moving furniture has brought an unexpected delay to his ambition.

CHECK YOUR EGO. It helps to play courses that aren't too difficult. I also no longer attempt to play from the back tees most of the time. Occasionally, I even sneak up to the appropriately named silver tees, not quite as far up as the ladies' tees, that some layouts now provide for those of us beyond seventy. I recently shot a seventy-seven at a course whose slope is 125. The day before, I had shot an eighty at a course whose slope is 137. Even though I played much better shooting the eighty, the seventyseven—on the easier course—was three shots closer to my age.

In the effort to shoot your age, are you in effect cheating if you make things too easy for yourself, moving up to the front tees, seeking out pushover courses, giving yourself short putts and so on?Only you really know the answer. Golf, after all, is a game that depends on self-policing, and this applies whether you're trying to shoot your age legitimately or simply want to say you've done so.

STAY CALM. Whatever a golfer's age may be, there's a natural temptation to race for the barn during an especially good round. For instance, a few years ago I was partnered with my friend David Mullen, whose handicap then was in the mid-single digits. The match was a four-ball against two very good players, one with a two handicap, at the National Golf Links of America, a testing par-seventythree layout in Southampton, New York, with more than 350 bunkers and numerous tricky greens.

It happened to be David's seventieth birthday, and his game was as solid as I'd ever seen it—and we had played together for some forty years. With a long, fluid swing, smooth putting stroke and calm presence, he isn't the sort to let pressure get to him. As we approached the seventeenth tee, he was six under par and needed only to par the last two holes for a stunning sixty-seven. Our side had already won all the bets up for grabs and the pressure, for me at least, was clearly off; no doubt reflecting this, I managed to shoot par in for a solid seventy-six. But not so David, who was well aware that he stood to break—indeed shatter—his age if only he could hold himself together through the last two holes, a short but treacherous par four and a long, uphill par five. He did manage to better his age, but only just, for he finished shakily with a five and a six, his only bogeys of the day.

The message: As the end of a round nears and you believe you have a chance to shoot your age, take it easy. Play each shot as it comes, don't rush things or dwell on the feat you may accomplish. Be patient and settle for par or at worst bogey, rather than attempt a risky shot for a birdie and chance double or worse.

MANAGE YOUR EXPECTATIONS. I know a number of seniors who still sport single-digit handicaps and shoot their age so routinely that they're upset when they don't do it. Indeed, a few years before his death, the great Sam Snead told me that he golfed almost every day and always shot his age or better. But be realistic about your own ambitions. Don't overly focus on shooting your age. Rather, get fitted for new clubs. Schedule an hour in the gym every day. Keep working on your short game. Then, one day, serendipitously, if it's going to happen, it will happen.

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