In Praise of the Olds (Even Sergio)

Finding the joy in watching late-career players performing on the big stage


Sergio Garcia has nothing left to prove, per Sergio Garcia. But he is still here at the U.S. Open, his 25th straight, not on some career accomplishment exemption but as a qualifier, just the same as many amateur teens and fringe pros who have never played a single major in their lives. He’s old, on a different tour, and full of scar tissue, but Thursday’s round was of a prime vintage.

Sergio whipped through the Dallas qualifier to put himself in position to get bumped into the Pinehurst field off the alternate list. That’s exactly what happened on Monday, bringing him to North Carolina. With OWGR points few and far between, many LIV players are reliant on either special exemptions or the qualifying process to make major fields. That’s a process some LIV members clearly viewed as beneath them. Talor Gooch infamously wailed about not getting a spot in every major, justifiably so in some cases, not at all in others, but then took his ball and went home, never even trying to qualify for Pinehurst. 

Sergio, despite having a long and successful career behind him already, has kept at it. “I love what I do, which is playing golf,” he said after a quintessentially par-proficient U.S. Open round. “I’m a competitor. I try to do it the best I can. Do I have to prove anything? No, of course not.”

We will absolutely not indulge the “Sergio seems happier/at peace now” narrative. That’s a cycle we’ve gone through every few years for the last couple of decades, only to see another controversy pop up or the grumpy version of Sergio to reappear. But there may be some clarity that comes with the sunset of a career. The pressure of expectations levels off. The die is cast. You can decide to add the gravy to your plate or not.

Through this same lens, it’s still been constructive to watch Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson this week. What do we expect of them at this point? What do they expect of themselves? Of course they want to compete and play well, maybe even well enough to win. But Tiger’s body is broken. Phil has seemed hardly competitive, almost to the point of going through the motions. This championship was his white whale over the last decade. He’d spend hours during practice rounds running through his lag drill on each green as he went around the course. That aggressive devotion to preparation seems diminished, almost certainly alongside his honest hopes of winning this major.

This does not mean either of these two should go away, even if their peak competitiveness has. There remains great value in having them present at these majors. It is still a thrill to see Phil’s recognizable saunter that’s walked to so many consequential shots at majors. For Tiger, the week has been an opportunity to prepare for a major championship with his 14-year-old son Charlie, who is now serving as swing consultant. That has been incredibly cool to see and watch develop. 

Charlie Woods looks on as his dad prepares for Pinehurst (all photos on this post courtesy the USGA/Jeff Haynes)

The rounds may be more painful to follow, the numbers on the card more crooked, but it would be wildly foolish to try and rush them off the stage. Why advocate or holler for such a thing?

This is a championship stage that may be especially inhospitable to the olds. The winners are often those that are fittest and in their prime form. Clark, Fitz, Rahm, Koepka, DeChambeau, Woodland, and so on. The brute of a U.S. Open, whether it’s cold or scorching, soaked or firm, may be the most “young man’s game” of all the majors. There’s a separate question of whether the modern U.S. Open can be won by an old guy. The loudest roars and biggest crowds don’t count on the scorecard for Tiger.

Pinehurst may be one of the spots that allows a ball-striking veteran like Sergio to mix it up. “I’ve always liked it here,” he said. “I did very well in 2005…I think that on a course like this, like Pinehurst No. 2, you can celebrate a lot of pars, and that’s what we were doing today.”

Sergio is not quite as old as Tiger and Phil, but he is their contemporary in terms of having nothing to prove. He still persists, even after having to qualify and not making it via exemption like Woods (special invitation) and Mickelson (winning the 2021 PGA). His Thursday round was clinical to watch up close, as he went from spot to spot while avoiding a single bogey in a U.S. Open round. Only leaders Patrick Cantlay and Ludvig Åberg gained more strokes tee-to-green than Sergio in the morning wave. It was vintage and pleasing to watch, as he hit 13/14 fairways and 16/18 greens in regulation. He set up several of what he called “outside chances” for birdies from 15-to-30 feet, a deliberate strategy. None of the putts fell, but that approach did keep the card clean, with 17 pars and that solitary birdie at the par-5 5th. 

“Obviously to shoot under par in a U.S. Open, which is a championship that I love, it’s always great,” he said after the round. “To go bogey-free is even greater. It’s something that I give a lot of respect to, and I’m very proud of. I’ve had the pleasure of playing this championship 25 years in a row, so not a lot of people get to do that, so I’m very, very happy to be here, and that’s why I keep trying to qualify and make it here.”

Look, we’re not going to throw a parade for Sergio or show up on Friday in our Fireballs gear. Between Sergio’s bag, hat, polo, pants(!), and even sun sleeves, there are plenty of Fireballs logos on the ground already. This could all come undone with a quick run of bogeys. But as with the opportunity to see olds like Tiger and Phil, we should all find the value in watching Sergio still play high-level major golf while talking about his “love” for the U.S. Open, “pride” in a bogey-free day, and “happiness” to simply be here.

For more coverage of the U.S. Open, visit the Fried Egg Golf U.S. Open hub.