Golf's 40-somethings believe they can hang with young guns at Masters

Collins: Tiger's attitude crucial ahead of Masters (2:06)

Michael Collins observes how calm Tiger Woods appears as he seeks his first win at Augusta since 2005. (2:06)

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The nerves of youth, the experience that comes with age. It has seemingly always been important to have a mixture of both at the Masters.

Augusta National presents such a test when the year's first major championship arrives. Masters Tournament winners typically need a bit of seasoning, a certain course initiation before becoming comfortable around the venerable venue.

And that is why we will not discount players such as Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods, Henrik Stenson, Jason Dufner, Charley Hoffman, Paul Casey and Zach Johnson from winning here this week, despite all being in their 40s.

There are obviously outliers. Jordan Spieth nearly won in his first attempt in 2014 at the age of 20, then won the following year in his second. Danny Willett, who overtook Spieth in the final round two years ago at the age of 28, was playing in just his second Masters. Tiger remains the youngest winner at 21 years, 104 days (Spieth being second to him) when he won his first of four green jackets in 1997. But aside from the first two Masters in 1934 and 1935, only one player has won in his first attempt -- Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979 at the age of 27.

"It's the only major we play year in and year out at the same venue, and experience is more of a factor [at Augusta] than anywhere else,'' said Mickelson, who won for the first time in nearly five years when he claimed the WGC-Mexico Championship last month. "Knowing how to hit the shots, knowing how to lay back, how to attack, is a big part of being successful."

There are 17 players in this year's 87-player field who are 40 or older, including Ian Poulter, who claimed the last spot by winning the Houston Open on Sunday. Of those 17, nine are still in their 40s.

And yet the idea that the most-seasoned players have an advantage is often offset by an understandable decline in skill as they age. So, while a victory by the likes of Mickelson, 47, or Woods, 42, or Casey, 40, would hardly be a surprise, it would be a statistical anomaly. In the 81 previous Masters, the tournament has been won by someone 40 or older only six times, and the last was 20 years ago, when Mark O'Meara, 41, won the first of two major titles that year.

The others are also Hall of Famers: Ben Hogan, 40 (1953); Sam Snead, 41 (1954); Gary Player, 42 (1978); Jack Nicklaus, 46 (1986); and Ben Crenshaw, 43 (1995).

"To me, it's like a double-edged sword," said defending champion Sergio Garcia, who was 37 when he won in his 18th Masters start, the record for number of attempts at a first victory. "I think that experience is obviously important because you know some of the places that you can hit it, and you know some of the places where the ball is going to run one way or another.

"At the same time," Garcia continued, "the beautiful thing about not knowing too much about the course is that you haven't had too many bad experiences where you hit in the water here or in the trees there or something like. There's not as much scar tissues. But at the end of the day, for a course like Augusta, it is important to know and have a little bit of experience there and know exactly what's going on."

Casey firmly believes "the 40-somethings could take on anybody" this week. He won the Valspar Championship last month, with Woods finishing a shot back. He also noted the duel just two years ago between Mickelson and Stenson at The Open, in which Stenson prevailed.

"Without question, I take that as a really positive sign," Casey said. "It's very different now. Tiger is back, but the players I'm competing against are a very different group of players than those I was competing against earlier in my career. It's not easier."

Yes, the likes of Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm, Spieth and Justin Rose -- the top five players in the world -- present a stout challenge. Casey, at No. 13 in the world, is the highest-ranked 40-something, but he has never won a major championship. Stenson is 14th and Mickelson is 18th.

"If you're going to be honest with yourself, you don't work anywhere near as hard at 40 as you did at 25," said two-time U.S. Open winner and ESPN golf analyst Andy North. "The only tournaments you probably really care about when you get to 40 are the majors, and that's why you do see these guys, the older guys, compete. ... There's a lot to it, but this group of 40-plus guys have a chance to be in the mix and have a chance to win. I wouldn't be a bit surprised at all if we had a guy in his 40s win."

Nicklaus is the oldest champion at age 46, but Raymond Floyd was 49 when he lost in a playoff against Nick Faldo in 1990. Nicklaus also tied for seventh in 1987 at age 47 and tied for sixth at age 58 in 1998. And there have been plenty of other close calls. Mickelson, who won his third Masters at age 39 in 2010, has had a second- and a third-place finish since. Angel Cabrera was 43 when he lost in a playoff to Adam Scott in 2013. Kenny Perry was 48 when he lost in a playoff to Cabrera in 2009.

"Golf is a game where you can draw on experience and so forth,'' Stenson said. "We play these courses a lot of times, and you make some mistakes, and you try and rectify that. When you've got younger players coming up, if they're playing here for the first time or the second time, they haven't maybe got the experience on a tough golf course, and they make one or two mistakes that's going to cost them a lot. So I think that plays a big part."

You can be sure that Mickelson and Woods -- who have seven Masters between them -- in no way feel that their age is a factor. They believe it is an asset. "I just know that place so well, have so many good memories,'' Woods said.

"I truly believe some of my best golf is in front of me," said 41-year-old Zach Johnson, who won the Masters 11 years ago and The Open at St. Andrews in 2015. "There is no reason I can't have more success."

The numbers might be against one of them wearing the green jacket on Sunday, but having experience on their side at Augusta National can be an odds-enhancing asset.