July 20, 2009

Contesting age-limits

She doesn't look 60.Like just about everyone else, I was cheering for 59-year-old Tom Watson to win the Open Championship at Turnberry July 19th. It was a feel-good story and a nice change to all-Tiger-all-the-time. It prompted me to think about our own competitions, of course, and I started comparing Watson’s situation with those that we’ve seen through the years in solo piping.

While I wanted Watson to win, I also reminded myself that the guy already has five Open Championship victories. That’s five more than the vast majority of the field, most of whom are decades younger. I don’t feel sorry for him one bit; he can go back to Kansas and kiss his five replica claret jugs.

As good a player as he is, the eventual winner, 36-year-old Stewart Cink, had never before won a major championship. I liked it when Cink’s young family poured onto the 18th green for a group hug. His win clearly meant a massive amount to the Cinks.

The Royal & Ancient, the organization that governs pro golf in the UK, last year lowered the age-limit at the Open to 60. Ironically, their rationale was that it would allow a few more younger players to compete, to have a shot at golf glory. Besides, almost all of those older than 60 who would compete in the Open are former-winners who qualify through their 25-year exemptions. I suppose they could get in through the truly open qualifying system, but that’s unlikely.

The Northern Meeting and Argyllshire Gathering – solo piping’s quasi-equivalents to the Open Championship – about 15 years ago decided to get tougher with older competitors in the Gold and Silver medal competitions. “Old” in their book apparently was (and still is, as far as I know) about 35 or 40 – an age when some pipers actually reach their prime piobaireachd-playing years. Highland Society of London Gold Medals have certainly been won by pipers older than 40, but usually after being several times in the prize-lists.

Oban and Inverness decided to reject entries from older applicants who had not previously won any or many prizes in the Gold Medal events. This allowed them to accept more entries from those 25-and-younger players who had done well around the (Scottish) games and/or in the Silver Medal, without managing to win that automatic qualifier.

Around 1998, after eight years of not competing or even entering Inverness and Oban, my entry to the Gold Medals was rejected. I was miffed at the time, but decided I’d go round the Scottish games instead, try to collect a few prizes and regain some cred, and re-apply the next year. It all worked out, and I was accepted again in 1999 and hit it as hard as I could (until 2005 after my entry was rejected following my having to bow out of Inverness when my mother died suddenly).

While I was peeved at the time, I actually think that the age policy makes a certain amount of sense. After a while, others should be given the chance to win their spot in history. If there are a limited number of spots for competitors – as with Oban, Inverness and golf’s Open Championship – then older players highly unlikely to win should be culled, if they don’t stand down on their own. It’s a tough call in a contest that can only be won once, but it’s ultimately good for the art and the sport.

Additionally, solo piping and drumming have a number of competitors who have won some top prizes numerous times, repeatedly experiencing the glory. I’m not sure that I agree, but there is an argument to be made that the Tom Watsons of our own solo world, might want to step back, enjoy their personal accomplishments, and make room for more of the next generation to have their shot at glory.


  1. Interesting comparison. On the surface, the same principles apply, BUT…There is one flaw, though. As far as I know, no piper has ever taken home 1.2 milleeon dawllerrrs from a competitoin. Surely THAT provides a strong part of the motivation to keep competing in golf……..

  2. I found myself agreeing at first; you make a convincing argument. However, one of my favorite things about our music competitions is that there (usually) are opportunities for people to show their stuff and compete with the best, regardless of age. If you can play well, you get respect and recognition. Part of me even disagrees with the whole concept of “Juvenile” and “Novice Juvenile” grading. Put those youth out there against everyone else, like they do in many PBA’s in the US. Yes, often the kids have the advantage of not having to earn a living or go to college, or whatever else can , so in many cases can focus more time on practice, but is that a bad thing?

    Piobaireachd may be a different story, but there are mental and health benefits to this. I say bring on all the old guys, but open up more slots for competitions! As a late life beginning piper, I hope that I can keep playing, and play well when I’m “older”.

    Great thoughts, though. This post made me think!

  3. Then we have some of the all time greats such as John MacDonald of Inverness, Donald MacPherson, more recently Bill Livingstone, and still currently Jack Lee. All have competed successfully past their 50’s, and some into 60″s and beyond. All players, young and old relish the opportunity to play against legends, particularily when they remain on top of their game. Now these fellows won medals early and competed in the clasp, clearing room in the medal, but you get the point. I say, keep playing as long as you want. But I do understand the dilema of ensuring young up and comers get a chance. I’ve even heard Tom Watson speak of that. They just have to beat him first.

  4. Maybe it kind of evens out naturally, because while the Tom Watson pipers’ fingers seize up with each year that passes, the young Cink pipers’ first few competitions are hampered by inexperience and lack of maturity. So I think it maybe sorts itself out somehow. What I mind MORE, is when the old timers entrenched in an ‘old school’ approach at the head of organisations, don’t move over to make room for freshness, fairness, and new thought and ideas. There, they really can hold things up dreadfully, clinging on by their finger nails, to things, when new more youthful thinkers and practitioners are waiting in the wings to be given a chance.

  5. Interesting issue. Firstly, it is my impression that the author was specifically writing about the very TOP level of competition be it piping or golf. It seems to me that both “cull” competitors without the necessity of playing the age card.
    In golf, regardless of age, there is a “cut” after two rounds. Both the Northern Meeting and Oban check recent results for qualifying purposes in the Gold Medal. Correct? (please note I am not assuming they have the “recent results” criteria quite fine tuned for overseas players…)
    In my opinion the BEST competitors, be it golf or piping, should play. No “break” should be given an older player and certainly no “break” should be given to a young player based on “future” or “potential.” Age should not even be on the table.

  6. As you can tell I am on leave and have plenty of time to read and ponder your points, As I had mentioned when you spoke of the Duty Pipers proposal I thought it would be a good Ideal.. But I am over 40, and deep inside me I have long to Win at Maxville, I have a 3rd from 1984 but I have always wanted the 1st place.. I want to over come my 2nd biggest problem for me as a solo player, NERVES… Yup… however as I have gotten older I feel that after 25 years I am able to go forward to play solo’s. And as I work / practise I look forward to hitting the solo circut for 2012 or 2013, yeah… That is my goal. As work will take me away for the next few years I am working to get to that level and compete at that level. I will be 45 than, and old as i will be my desire for that 1st place champion supreme is still burning deep in side, even more than it did 25 years ago… I will need a ruling the last grade I competed in solos was Grade 4.. Me I was looking at Grade 2 to make my return.. PS I will need a piper….Forward your resumes haha

  7. Don’t most winners of the All-Ireland competitions have an unwritten “rule” that after winning, they don’t come back year after year? I’m sure there are some who compete again after winning but, at least with the pipers, it seems they win it once and move on.



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