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.


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