On May 23, 2021, Phil Mickelson won the 2021 PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, and in so doing, he became the oldest major champion in golf history. Mr. Mickelson, at 50 years, 11 months, and 7 days, broke a record that had stood for nearly 53 years. Julius Boros had held the mark since he won the 1968 PGA Championship at 48 years, 4 months, and 18 days. As durable as Boros’s record was, it did not stand for as long as the previous record – Old Tom Morris won the 1867 Open Championship at 46 years, 3 months, and 10 days. Had Boros not broken Morris’s record, Mr. Mickelson would have broken a 154-year-old mark.
Between the 1968 and 2021 PGA Championships, a number of golfers who were older than Julius Boros, including Julius Boros himself, finished high on the leader boards of golf majors. In this article, I will examine all of the close calls, that is, golfers who were older than Boros when they threatened his record as the oldest major champion between the 1968 PGA and Mr. Mickelson’s historic victory last Sunday.
(April 10, 2023 Update: Added a note to the section on Phil Mickelson’s 2021 PGA Championship victory regarding his runner-up finish at the 2023 Masters. Made minor technical edits in phrasing to sections on Jeff Sluman and Greg Norman.)
- Criteria for List Inclusion
- The Previous Record: Julius Boros Wins the 1968 PGA Championship
- Tommy Bolt (54) Finishes Third at the 1971 PGA Championship
- Sam Snead (60) Finishes Tied for Fourth at the 1972 PGA Championship
- Julius Boros (53) Finishes Tied for Seventh at the 1973 U.S. Open
- Sam Snead (62) Finishes Tied for Third at the 1974 PGA Championship
- Harold Henning (48) Finishes Tied for Sixth at the 1983 Open Championship
- Gary Player (48) Finishes Tied for Second at the 1984 PGA Championship
- Raymond Floyd (49) Finishes Second at the 1992 Masters
- Jack Nicklaus (58) Finishes Tied for Sixth at the 1998 Masters
- Tom Kite (51) Finishes Tied for Fifth at the 2001 U.S. Open
- Jay Haas (49) Finishes Tied for Fifth at the 2003 PGA Championship
- Jeff Sluman (48) Finishes Tied for Sixth at the 2006 U.S. Open
- Greg Norman (53) Finishes Third for Third at the 2008 Open Championship
- Kenny Perry (48) Finishes Tied for Second at the 2009 Masters
- Tom Watson (59) Finishes Second at the 2009 Open Championship
- Miguel Ángel Jiménez (50) Finishes 4th at the 2014 Masters
- Phil Mickelson (50) Wins the 2021 PGA Championship
- Some Takeaways from the List
Criteria for List Inclusion
To begin, we are only looking at major championships that occurred between the 1968 and 2021 PGA Championships. I will not examine major championships that occurred before Julius Boros’s victory at the 1968 PGA since my focus is on golfers who threatened Boros’s record as the oldest major champion.
(For those who are not familiar with golf but are interested in learning a bit of golf history – golf has four annual major championship tournaments: The Masters, U.S. Open, Open Championship (also known as the British Open), and the PGA Championship.)
In order to qualify for inclusion on my list, a golfer must satisfy the following three criteria:
- The golfer must have been older than 48 years, 4 months, and 18 days on the final day of the major championship; and
- The golfer must have either finished in the top 5 of the major championship or finished between 6th and 10th place and been within 5 shots of the winner.
I will note that the concept of “threatening” Boros’s record is a bit amorphous. A golfer who finishes third in one major may have had an opportunity to win on the final hole, while a golfer who finishes third in another major may have never been in position to win on the final Sunday. Some golfers who satisfied my criteria had a very real opportunity to break Boros’s record on the final day of the major while others did not. I think that my cutoffs, while somewhat arbitrary, do ensure that every golfer who was older than Boros was at the 1968 PGA Championship and who was in serious contention at a major is included. I will note a few cases where a golfer just missed the top 5 or being within 5 shots criteria.
The Previous Record: Julius Boros Wins the 1968 PGA Championship
The 50th PGA Championship took place from July 18-21 at the Pecan Valley Golf Club in San Antonio, Texas.
Julius Boros (48) Wins the 1968 PGA Championship
- Finish: Champion (71-71-70-69=281 +1). One shot ahead of Bob Charles and Arnold Palmer.
- After 54 Holes: T2 (+2). One shot behind leaders
- Age: 48 years, 4 months, 18 days
Julius Boros broke Tom Morris Sr.’s 101-year-old record as the oldest major champion when he captured the 1968 PGA Championship at the age of 48 years, 4 months, and 18 days. As we noted, Boros’s record would stand for more than five decades.
Boros entered the final round in a nine-way tie for second place, two shots behind the 54-hole co-leaders, Frank Beard and Marty Fleckman at even par. Among the golfers with whom Boros was tied were Arnold Palmer and Lee Trevino, who would end their careers with 13 major championships between them.
Boros shot a 1-under 69 on the final day to finish in first place alone at +1, one shot ahead of Bob Charles and Palmer. This was Boros’s third and final major championship victory – but as we will see, he was not done competing for titles.
Tommy Bolt (54) Finishes Third at the 1971 PGA Championship
The 1971 PGA took place at PGA National Golf Club in Florida (today Ballen Isles Country Club), and it was unique for being played from February 25-28.
Tommy Bolt at the 1971 PGA
- Finish: 3rd (72-74-69-69=284 -4). Three shots behind the winner, Jack Nicklaus.
- After 54 Holes: T4 (-1). Seven shots behind leader.
- Age: 54 years, 10 months, 28 days
The first golfer to threaten Boros’s record under my criteria was the 54-year-old Tommy Bolt at the 53rd PGA Championship.
Tommy Bolt had won one major- the 1958 U.S. Open. That win came by four shots over Gary Player, who we will be hearing from shortly on this list. Bolt’s World Golf Hall of Fame profile notes that he was known for his temper on the golf course, to which many golf clubs fell victim.
Jack Nicklaus was the solo leader after all four rounds of the 1971 PGA. Bolt entered the final round in a seven-way tie for fourth place, six shots behind Nicklaus, but he earned a solo-third place finish with a solid final-round 69 and was one shot behind second-place Billy Casper.
Sam Snead (60) Finishes Tied for Fourth at the 1972 PGA Championship
The 54th PGA Championship took place at Oakland Hills Country Club from August 3-6.
Sam Snead at the 1972 PGA
- Finish: 4th (70-74-71-69=284 +4). Three shots behind the winner, Gary Player.
- After 54 holes: +5. Six shots behind the leader.
- Age: 60 years, 2 months, 10 days
Sam Snead is the only golfer over 60 to have satisfied my criteria. Moreover, he did so twice. His first post-60 run at a major championship occurred at the 1972 PGA.
Snead entered the final round at +5, just outside the top 10, but he moved into a tie for fourth with a solid final round 69. The champion, Gary Player, and Snead’s co-fourth place finisher, Raymond Floyd, will both make appearances on this list for major championship runs in the later years.
I will reserve further discussion of Snead for his second, and even more competitive, run at Boros’s record.
Julius Boros (53) Finishes Tied for Seventh at the 1973 U.S. Open
The 73rd U.S. Open took place at Oakmont Country Club from June 14-17.
Julius Boros at the 1973 U.S. Open
- Finish: T7 (73-69-68-73=283 -1). Four shots behind the winner, Johnny Miller.
- After 54 holes: T1 (-3). Part of four-way tie for the lead.
- Age: 53 years, 3 months, 14 days
It is fitting that Boros gave his own record a scare in 1973 at age 53. Boros is the first of four golfers on my list of sixteen to have had a share of the 54-hole lead. Although he finished in a tie for seventh, he was very much in contention throughout the final round.
The 1973 U.S. Open is most remembered for Johnny Miller’s spectacular final round eight-under 63, which brought him from six shots back to the championship. Miller’s final round was arguably the greatest final round performance in major championship golf.
In addition to his 1968 PGA Championship, Boros had won the 1952 and 1963 U.S. Opens.
Sam Snead (62) Finishes Tied for Third at the 1974 PGA Championship
The 56th PGA Championship was played at Tanglewood Park from August 8-11.
Sam Snead at the 1974 PGA Championship
- Finish: T3 (69-71-71-68=279 -1). Three shots behind the winner, Lee Trevino.
- After 54 Holes: 10th (+1). Four shots behind the leader.
- Age: 62 years, 2 months, 25 days
For the fourth consecutive year, a golfer older that Julius Boros at the 1968 PGA met my major contention criteria. For the second time, it was Sam Snead. 1974 marked the 62-year-old Snead’s third consecutive top 10 finish at the PGA – his 9th place at the 1973 edition just missed my cutoff criteria for inclusion on this list.
Snead entered the final round in 10th place four shots behind Lee Trevino, and he moved into a tie for third with a stellar final round 68. The top two finishers were Mr. Trevino and Jack Nicklaus.
The 1974 PGA Championship marked the last time Snead would contend for a major. He finished in the top 10 of majors an astounding 9 times after turning 50, with this third place at the PGA at age 62 being his highest post-50 performance. No other golfer has matched Snead’s sustained record of competing in major championships into his early 60s.
Snead had established himself as one of the greatest golfers of all time well before turning 50. He was a seven-time major champion. Moreover, his mark of 82 total wins on the PGA Tour is tied for first all time with a certain Tiger Woods.
Harold Henning (48) Finishes Tied for Sixth at the 1983 Open Championship
The 112th Open Championship was held at Royal Birkdale Golf Club from July 14-17, 1983.
Harold Henning at the 1983 Open Championship
- Finish: T6 (71-69-70-69=279 -5). Four shots behind the winner, Tom Watson.
- After 54 holes: (-3). Five shots behind the leader.
- Age: 48 years, 9 months, 14 days
South Africa’s Harold Henning is one of the more unsung names to make the list. He won twice on the PGA Tour in his career. Prior to his sixth place finish in the 1983 British Open, he had not finished in the top 10 in a major since 1973. Henning was not in contention to win in the final round, but a solid final round 69 gave him a strong top-10 finish in what would be his penultimate appearance in a major championship.
Gary Player (48) Finishes Tied for Second at the 1984 PGA Championship
The 66th PGA Championship was held at the Shoal Creek Country Club from August 16-19, 1984.
Gary Player at the 1984 PGA Championship
- Finish: T2 (74-63-69-71=277 -11). Four shots behind the winner, Lee Trevino.
- After 54 holes: 3 (-10). Two shots behind the leader.
- Age: 48 years, 9 months, 18 days
South Africa’s Gary Player was known for his dedication to physical fitness, so it seems fitting that he should have one entry on the list. After struggling in the first round, Mr. Player tied the then-major championship record with a second round 63, giving him a share of the 36-hole lead. He was very much in contention until the end, finishing four shots behind the champion, Lee Trevino. At 44 years, 8 months, and 18 days, Mr. Trevino was the 7th oldest golfer to win a major.
1984 was Mr. Player’s final run at a major. Although he competed at the British Open until 2001 and the Masters until 2009, he never again finished in the top 10 of a major. Mr. Player had a remarkable career on the whole, winning 9 major championships and being one of only five golfers (Ben Hogan, Gene Sarazen, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods) to win all four majors at least once.
Raymond Floyd (49) Finishes Second at the 1992 Masters
The 56th Masters, like all Masters, was played at the Augusta National Golf Club. It took place April 9-12, 1992.
Raymond Floyd at the 1992 Masters
- Finish: 2nd (69-68-69-71=277 -11). Two shots behind the winner, Fred Couples.
- After 54 holes: 3rd (-10). Two shots behind the leader.
- Age: 49 years, 7 months, 8 days
Raymond Floyd, a four-time major champion, came close to surpassing Boros’s record in a memorable final round one group behind the eventual winner, Fred Couples – who would, in his later years, come just short on multiple occasions of meeting the criteria for this list at The Masters. Mr. Floyd played well, but Mr. Couples’s ball just avoided the water on the 12th hole on Sunday.
Mr. Floyd nearly met the criteria for this list in 1993 and 1994 after turning 50. He finished tied for 7th at the 1993 U.S. Open and tied for 10th at the 1994 Masters, finishing seven and eight shots back of the winners respectively. Moreover, he was only months short of making the list with a runner-up finish at the 1990 Masters.
Jack Nicklaus (58) Finishes Tied for Sixth at the 1998 Masters
The 62nd Masters, like the 1992 Masters, was played at Augusta National Golf Club from April 9-12.
Jack Nicklaus at the 1998 Masters
- Finish: T6 (73-72-70-68=283 -5). Four shots behind the winner, Mark O’Meara.
- After 54 holes: T10 (-1). Five shots behind the leader.
- Age: 58 years, 2 months, 22 days
Tiger Woods has spent his career chasing Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 majors. Only once, however, did Tiger Woods find himself actually chasing Mr. Nicklaus at a major. One year after Mr. Woods won the 1997 Masters by a record 12-strokes, he finished in two shots behind the 58-year-old Jack Nicklaus at the 1998 Masters.
Mr. Nicklaus entered the final round at -1, and he worked his way to -5 with a stellar final round 68, giving his long-time fans an unexpected show. He started just a bit too far back to make up the deficit in the final round, but it is remarkable that the 58-year-old Nicklaus was in contention in the 1998 Masters at all.
Mr. Nicklaus nearly made my list with a 6th place finish at the 1990 Masters, but he finished seven shots behind the winner, just missing the cutoff criteria. His memorable win at the 1986 Masters leaves him as the fourth oldest golfer to win a major championship.
Mr. Nicklaus’s accomplishments are too myriad to list here in detail. He has won 18 majors, more than any other golfer, and save for Tiger Woods (15), no one else has won more than 11. Mr. Nicklaus completed golf’s grand slam – winning every major at least once – three times over.
Tom Kite (51) Finishes Tied for Fifth at the 2001 U.S. Open
The 101st U.S. Open was held at Southern Hills Country Club from June 14-18, 2001. The tournament was decided in an 18-hole playoff on June 18 between the eventual champion, Retief Goosen, and Mark Brooks.
Tom Kite at the 2001 U.S. Open
- Finish: T5 (73-72-72-64=281 +1). Five shots behind the winner, Retief Goosen.
- After 54 holes: (+6). 11 shots behind the leaders.
- Age: 51 years, 6 months, 9 days
Tom Kite entered the final round 11 shots behind the co-leaders, and held serve until the back nine on Sunday, when he caught fire and posted a scorching five-under, 64. While Mr. Kite was never in contention on Sunday, his strong play in the final round gave him a strong top-5 finish. This would be the last of Mr. Kite’s 27 career top-10 finishes in majors.
Mr. Kite was a top golfer for more than two decades. He had many close calls in majors, and one victory in the 1992 U.S. Open. Although the 2001 U.S. Open was his last top 10 in a major, he led a regular PGA Tour event after 54 holes in 2005 at age 55.
Jay Haas (49) Finishes Tied for Fifth at the 2003 PGA Championship
The 85th PGA Championship was held at Oak Hill Country Club from August 14-17, 2003.
Jay Haas at the 2003 PGA
- Finish: T5 (70-74-69-69=282 +2). Six shots behind the winner, Shaun Micheel.
- After 54 Holes: (+3). Seven shots behind the leaders.
- Age: 49 years, 8 months, 15 days
Jay Haas played in more majors – 87 – than any golfer who never won a major. He was a steady player for many years, and he experienced a late-career resurgence in 2003, which included his ninth and final top-5 finish at a major in the 2003 PGA. Mr. Haas was not in winning position on Sunday, but a solid final-round 69 was enough to move him into the tie for fifth place. Mr. Haas would post a 9th place finish at the 2004 U.S. Open after turning 50, but at 11 shots back of the winner, missed the cutoff criteria for this list.
Every major that I listed before now had a champion who is in the World Golf Hall of Fame. The 2003 PGA was notable for having one of the more unexpected major champions. Shaun Micheel, qualifying for his first major in more than two years and only his third overall, won the PGA championship. He would finish second at the 2006 PGA, but other than that strong performance, never posted another top 10 in a major.
Jeff Sluman (48) Finishes Tied for Sixth at the 2006 U.S. Open
The 106th U.S. Open was held at Winged Foot Golf Club from June 15-18, 2006.
Jeff Sluman at the 2006 U.S. Open
- Finish: T6 (74-73-72-69=288 +8). Three shots behind the winner, Geoff Ogilvy.
- After 54 Holes: (+9). Seven shots behind the leaders.
- Age: 48 years, 9 months, 7 days
This list ends with one of Phil Mickelson’s greatest triumphs. It also includes his most soul-crushing defeat. The 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot is most remembered for Mr. Mickelson taking a one-shot lead onto the final hole and ending one shot behind the winner in the clubhouse. Not only did Mr. Mickelson’s 72nd hole double bogey prevent him from adding a U.S. Open championship to is resume (it is, to date, his only missing major), but it also would have been his third consecutive major win after having won the 2005 PGA and 2006 Masters going in.
Jeff Sluman entered the final round of the 2006 U.S. Open at +9, well outside of contention. One would not ordinarily think that shooting -1 in the final round in that scenario would be enough to move into a tie for sixth place, but the 2006 U.S. Open was almost comically (not for those involved) brutal. Mr. Sluman was one of only two players in the top 10 to shoot under par in the final round.
Mr. Sluman was well in contention on the final day. He made it to +5 – the eventual winning score – after shooting -4 through six holes. Unfortunately for him, he shot +3 the rest of the way, falling back to +8.
Mr. Sluman won four times in what was a long and solid career – including a major championship at the 1988 PGA. His sixth-place finish at the 2006 U.S. Open was his first major top 10 since the 1998 U.S. Open, and his last. While Mr. Sluman is one of the youngest players on the list, his appearance is one of the most impressive in light of the difficulty of the 2006 U.S. Open and the exceptional caliber of the golfers in contention on its final Sunday.
Greg Norman (53) Finishes Third for Third at the 2008 Open Championship
The 137th Open Championship was held at the Royal Birkdale Golf Club from July 17-20, 2008. Recall that the 1983 British Open, which featured earlier on our list, was also played at Royal Birkdale.
Greg Norman at the 2008 Open Championship
- Finish: T3 (70-70-72-77-289 +9). Six shots behind the winner, Pádraig Harrington.
- After 54 Holes: Leader (+2). Two shots ahead of second place.
- Age: 53 years, 5 months, 7 days
Australia’s Greg Norman was one of the most successful golfers of the 1980s and 1990s. He was ranked #1 in the world for more than 300 weeks, and although he had his share of heartbreaking losses in majors among his eight runner-up finishes, he won the 1986 and 1993 British Opens.
Due in part to back troubles and in part to focusing on other projects, Mr. Norman faded in his mid-40s. He entered the 2008 British Open having not even played in a major since the 2005 edition of the tournament. His previous top 10 in a major had been a sixth place finish at the 1999 Open.
Mr. Norman deftly navigated what was perhaps the most difficult Open Championship set-up in recent memory, entering the weekend one shot behind the leader. A two-over 72 in the third round ended up moving Mr. Norman into sole possession of the lead heading into the final Sunday. Mr. Norman was, for one year (see below), the oldest golfer to have at least a share of the 54-hole lead going into a major.
Mr. Norman struggled, along with just about everyone else, on Sunday, shooting four over on the front nine. He was, however, in the lead as he entered the back nine. Unfortunately for him and his many fans around the world, Pádraig Harrington shot four under on the back nine to win his second straight British Open while Mr. Norman faded into a tie for third.
Mr. Norman would only compete in two more majors, missing the cut at the 2009 Masters and Open Championship.
Kenny Perry (48) Finishes Tied for Second at the 2009 Masters
The 73rd Masters was held at Augusta National Golf Club from April 9-12, 2009.
- Finish: T2 (68-67-70-71=276 -12). Lost in three-way playoff to Ángel Cabrera.
- After 54 Holes: Co-Leader (-11) with Ángel Cabrera.
- Age: 48 years, 8 months, 2 days
To say Kenny Perry came close to breaking Julius Boros’s record as the oldest major champion would be an understatement. Mr. Perry led by two shots with two holes to play at the 2009 Masters. He bogeyed the final two holes to fall into a three-way playoff, and then lost on the second playoff hole.
Mr. Perry was a solid player for many years and played well into his 40s. However, the 2009 Masters marked Mr. Perry’s first appearance in the tournament since 2009, and only his third appearance in a major since 2007. His tie for second was his first top 10 in the Masters and only his third top 5 at a major (2nd at the 1996 PGA and T3 at the 2003 U.S. Open). Mr. Perry has gone on to great success on the Champion’s Tour, and he competed in 10 majors after his heartbreaking loss at the 2009 Masters but was never again in contention.
Tom Watson (59) Finishes Second at the 2009 Open Championship
The 138th Open Championship was held at the Alisa Course of the Turnberry Resort from July 16-19, 2009.
Tom Watson at the 2009 Open Championship
- Finish: 2nd (65-70-71-72=278 -2). Lost in playoff to Stuart Cink.
- After 54 Holes: Leader (-4) by one shot over co-second.
- Age: 59 years, 10 months, 15 days
Tom Watson had the most memorable run at Mr. Boros’s record prior to Mr. Mickelson’s victory in 2021. Mr. Watson had won The Open Championship at Turnberry once before – in 1977. The Open returned to Turnberry, as did Mr. Watson. While Mr. Watson was a top player on golf’s 50-and-over Champion’s Tour. he had not made the cut at a major since 2006 and had not posted a top 10 since 2000 (at 9 shots back in the 2000 PGA, he missed the cutoff for list inclusion).
Mr. Watson began the Open with a 5-under 65 in the first round for a share of second place. He entered the weekend tied for the lead, and entered Sunday as the sole leader, breaking the record for oldest 54-hole leader at a major that had been set by Greg Norman one year earlier. (I will venture that Mr. Watson’s record for oldest 54-hole leader at a major will stand for a very long time).
Mr. Watson struggled at the beginning of the final round but righted the ship on the back nine. He held a one-shot lead in the final group going onto the final hole and left himself with a medium-length putt to become the oldest major champion and the fourth golfer to win 10 majors. Alas, Mr. Watson missed his par-putt, and struggled to a decisive loss in a 4-hole playoff against Stuart Cink.
Although he came up short, Mr. Watson gave fans one of the most memorable major performances in golf history. With nine major titles including five victories at the Open Championship, Mr. Watson is one of the most accomplished golfers in history.
Tom Watson did not contend for another major, but he would make the cut in five majors after turning 60. His best showing was a tie for 18th place at the 2010 Masters, wherein he was one shot behind the leader – Fred Couples (age 50) – after a first round 67.
Miguel Ángel Jiménez (50) Finishes 4th at the 2014 Masters
The 78th Masters was held at Augusta National Golf Club from April 10-13, 2014.
Miguel Ángel Jiménez at the 2014 Masters
- 4th (71-76-66-71=284 -4). Four shots behind the winner, Bubba Watson.
- After 54 Holes: T5 (-3). Two shots behind the leaders.
- Age: 50 years, 3 months, 8 days
Miguel Ángel Jiménez was an excellent golfer on both the PGA Tour and Europe tour for many years. He posted solid performances at majors well into his 40s and posted wins in Asia and Europe in 2012, 2013, and 2014. He explained that he was able to play well around 50 because of “good food, good wine, good cigars and some exercise.”
Mr. Jiménez entered the weekend at +3, having made the cut by two strokes. Mr. Jiménez turned his fortunes around with a 6-under 66 in the third round, placing him two shots behind the leaders and in the third-to-last group on Sunday.
Mr. Jiménez’s chances to win his first major faded on the front-nine, but he shot three under on the back nine to earn a solo-fourth place finish.
Mr. Jiménez only made the cut in one of his subsequent nine major appearances, but he has found success on the Champion’s Tour.
Because we are on the subject of the 2014 Masters, Bernhard Langer deserves special honorable mention. While Mr. Jiménez finished 4th at age 50, Bernhard Langer tied for 8th place at 55 years of age – missing the cutoff for inclusion on the list because he was eight shots back of the champion.
Phil Mickelson (50) Wins the 2021 PGA Championship
The 2021 PGA Championship was held at Kiawah Island from May 20-23, 2021.
Phil Mickelson at the 2021 PGA
- Champion (70-69-70-73=282 -6). Two shots ahead of co-second place.
- After 54 Holes: Leader (-7). One shot ahead of second place.
- Age: 50 years, 11 months, 7 days.
Julius Boros’s record finally fell to Phil Mickelson, who was less than one month shy of his 51st birthday. Phil Mickelson is one of the greatest golfers of his generation, and he had 44 PGA Tour wins and 5 majors entering the 2021 PGA. Although Mr. Mickelson had struggled in recent years, he won as recently as 2019 and had made the cut in nine of his previous 11 majors, although he was not in contention in any. He last threatened to win a major in his runner-up finish at the 2016 British Open.
Mr. Mickelson entered the weekend with a share of the lead, and he entered the final round as the sole leader by one shot over 2-time PGA champion Brooks Koepka. He led for most of the final round and opened a five-stroke lead early in the back nine. That margin was enough, and Mr. Mickelson walked through a very crowded fairway on the 18th and final hole, with his first major championship victory since 2013 all but assured.
While Mr. Mickelson was perhaps the most likely current golfer older than Julius Boros to win a major in 1968, it could hardly be called expected in light of the fact he last seriously contended for a major in 2016 and had fallen outside the top 100 in the world rankings. However, in light of the fact that he appears to be in great condition for his age (perhaps unexpected given his lack of condition at times earlier in his career) and his continued focus on the PGA Tour, I would not be surprised to see him give his own record a run at least once (and perhaps more than once) much like Julius Boros did in 1973.
(April 10, 2023 Update: My above prediction in the original article proved to be well-founded. Mr. Mickelson gave his new age record a run at the 2023 Masters, wherein he finished in a tie for second place, four shots behind the winner (see Leaflet). Mr. Mickelson is the first golfer to meet the criteria I used for determining runs at Boros’s former age record for the new champion age record of 50 years, 11 months, and 7 days.)
Some Takeaways from the List
I had only watched the 2001 through 2014 majors on the list. As for Mr. Mickelson’s recent triumph, I was unable to watch because I realized that I had not yet set up my new TV antenna. I knew a couple of the entries that would appear on the list before I began researching, but others were surprises. Below, I will go through some of my impressions having completed the project.
Golfers in Winning Position
As I noted at the top, my criteria is imperfect. Some golfers who made my list, such as Tom Kite for the 2001 U.S. Open, were not in contention to win on Sunday. Had Greg Norman lost two additional shots on the back nine at the 2009 Open Championship, he would have missed my cutoff despite having been the 54-hole leader and in the lead with nine to play (I would have used different criteria if that had been the case, however). In the end, I think that the criteria were over-inclusive in a good way. Every golfer who was in serious contention late on the final Sunday was included, along with a few who were not. The only one that I am aware of who should have made it was Fred Couples at the 2010 Masters – wherein he finished sixth, seven shots behind Phil Mickelson. (Mr. Mickelson could have spared two shots, still won, and helped Mr. Couples satisfy my criteria – alas.)
Having watched the 2001-2014 majors on the list, I can say definitively that Norman (08 Open), Perry (09 Masters), and Watson (09 Open) were all in strong a position to win on the final Sunday, with the latter two having opportunities on the final hole and ensuing playoffs.
For the earlier majors that I did not see, Raymond Floyd was likely the closest at the 1992 Masters, vying with the eventual champion, a younger Fred Couples, deep into the back nine. Two others deserve special mention. Gary Player entered the final round in second and held his ground at the 1984 PGA, and Julius Boros had a share of the lead going into the final round of the 1973 U.S. Open.
No Increase in 48+ Golfers Competing for Majors
There are several reasons that one may expect to see more older golfers competing for majors today than in earlier years. Many golfers now focus on physical conditioning, travel is easier, and the Champions Tour gives golfers an incentive to compete well into their 60s and even 70s.
It may be true in a broad sense that more golfers remain competitive into their 50s and 60s than before, but it has not translated into contending in majos. Since a remarkable stretch in 2008 and 2009 where golfers aged 53, 49, and 59 nearly captured three majors, only Phil Mickelson, in his recent successful effort, was in position to win a major on the back nine on Sunday. 1971-74 not only featured four efforts that made my list, but two by Sam Snead, who had already turned 60. Had my criteria been a touch looser, Snead would have had a third entry on the list.
No matter what improvements there are in technology, conditioning, travel, and incentives, competing for major championships becomes more difficult with age.
Vijay Singh was known for his extraordinary work-ethic and physical conditioning. He had his best season at age 41 in 2004, winning nine tournaments, the money title, player of the year, and briefly interrupting Tiger Woods’s long reign as the top-ranked player in the world. At age 45, he won the FedEx Cup in 2008. However, despite playing regularly on the PGA Tour, Mr. Singh’s best post-50 finish in a major is a tie for 35th at the 2014 PGA. I doubt that anyone, me included, would have thought that a semi-retired Greg Norman and 59-year old Tom Watson would nearly win majors in their 50s, but Mr. Singh would not. If I were asked in 2004, I will venture that I would have thought that Mr. Singh would be a more likely candidate to win a major after 50 than Mr. Mickelson.
Of course, Mr. Singh is still younger than Mr. Watson and Mr. Snead were in their appearances on the list, so perhaps he has one more major run in him.
The golfers who made the list were all between the ages of 48 and 62.
Five of the sixteen golfers were 48 years old, being several months older than Julius Boros at the 1968 PGA. Six of the 16 were either 48 or 49, while the remaining 10 were over 50.
As I noted above, the four entries on the list from the 1970s were all older than the median golfer on the list: 54, 60, 53, and 62. Sam Snead’s 1972 and 1974 entries are the two oldest on the entire list.
The fifth oldest entry on the list is Tommy Bolt at 54. After Bolt, we jump to age 58 with Jack Nicklaus at the 1998 Masters, 59 with Tom Watson at the 2009 Open Championship, and Sam Snead’s two post-60 entries from 1972 and 1974. There are no surprises among the three oldest golfers on the list. Sam Snead is tied with Tiger Woods for the most PGA Tour victories all time. Mr. Nicklaus holds the major championship record with 18 victories. Mr. Watson’s nine major championship wins leave him tied with Gary Player for fourth all time.
Something in the Water in 2008-2009
The stretch book-ended by the 2008 and 2009 Open Championships is unlikely to be repeated. Greg Norman came out of semi-retirement to have the lead at the Open Championship with nine holes to play on Sunday. Both Kenny Perry and the 59-year old Tom Watson led majors with one hole to play respectively, coming closer than anyone had come to breaking Julius Boros’s 40-year old record.
Of course, Mr. Perry would be too young for inclusion on a post-Mickelson list.
Most Golfers Who Threatened the Record Won Majors
Eleven of the fifteen golfers who made my list had won majors previously. Not at all surprising, but worth noting. If I had guessed before I did the list, I may have guessed that a higher percentage of golfers on the list would have been former major champions.
No One in Tiger Woods’s Wins
Tiger Woods won 15 majors, but none of them featured a golfer who met my criteria on the leaderboard. The majors that were featured, however, were won by luminaries including Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Lee Trevino (twice), Tom Watson, and several other multi-time major champions.
Some Golfers I Expected to See
Hale Irwin is arguably the most accomplished senior tour golfer of all time, and he remains the sixth oldest major champion with his win at 45 years old at the 1990 U.S. Open. He was in fourth place after the first round of both the 2000 and 2001 U.S. Opens. Had Mr. Irwin been just a touch older, he would have made the list with his tie for 6th at the 1993 PGA, but he did not come close once he surpassed Mr. Boros in age.
As I noted, I thought that my favorite golfer, Fred Couples, would make the list. I only realized after creating the rules that his 6th place at the 2010 Masters at age 50 would just miss the criteria. Mr. Couples posted several other strong performances at the Masters after turning 50, with four consecutive top 20 finishes from 2011-2014 and an 18th place finish in 2017. I had a similar expectation for Bernhard Langer, who I noted just missed the list with his 8th place finish in 2014 Masters.
I thought that Raymond Floyd might have an additional appearance on my list after the 1992 Masters.
The U.S. Open is the Toughest Major
While major championships vary in difficulty from tournament to tournament, the U.S. Open is traditionally considered the most difficult on average. The U.S. Open appeared only three times out of 16 on my list, and only Julius Boros in 1973 appeared to be in strong position to win the tournament going into the final round. The Masters (1992 and 2009) and British Open (2008 and 2009) have had very close calls, but the U.S. Open has not.
Mr. Mickelson famously has six runner-up finishes at the U.S. Open, and a U.S. Open title would make him the sixth golfer to complete the career grand slam. Does he have another run left in him? I suppose we shall see in the coming years.
I hope you enjoyed our tour of older golfers who have contended for major championships since 1968. If I made any mistakes or omissions (I hope that I did not…), please let me know in the Guestbook, and I will update the post with credit.
Will Mr. Mickelson challenge his own record? Is there a Greg Norman-esque surprise in the future? Does a golfer pushing 60 have a Watson-esque run in him? I know not, but with this list, we will have a point of comparison for future surprises.