Des Smyth (Getty Images)
He may have surrendered his long-standing record as the oldest winner in European Tour history to Miguel Angel Jiménez in 2012, but as he celebrates his 60th birthday today, Des Smyth continues to mature with age on the European Senior Tour.
The popular Irishman won the Travis Perkins plc Senior Masters at Woburn Golf Club in September and recorded six other top ten finishes on the Senior Tour last year, to finish the season in ninth position on the Order of Merit.
That matched his joint best campaign since 2005 - the year he lost in a play-off to Tom Watson in The Senior Open Championship at Royal Aberdeen Golf Club - proving that even as he prepared to enter his seventh decade, age proves no barrier for the former Ryder Cup player.
Having won his first professional titles in 1979, when he claimed the Irish National PGA Championship and Irish Fourball Championship (with Jimmy Heggarty) as well his maiden European Tour title in the European Match Play Championship, Smyth has enjoyed success in each of the subsequent four decades.
Now, with victories in each of the past three seasons on the Senior Tour, Smyth is targeting a personal milestone in 2013.
“I still feel good and I have a little ambition for 2013 to win at the age of 60,” he said. “I’ve done five decades in terms of winning titles – the 1970s, 80s, 90s, 2000s and 2010s - but if I win again in the new season it will be in my own five decades. I’ve won in my 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s, so it would be nice to win in my 60s too. That would be a nice target to achieve.”
Understandably, Smyth had mixed emotions as he watched another evergreen player, Spaniard Jiménez, supplant him as the oldest European Tour winner, having held the record for 11 years after winning the 2001 Madeira Islands Open at the age of 48 years and 34 days.
“I lost my record to a great player,” he said. “I thought it might have gone before it did. I thought Mark McNulty, or Eduardo Romero, or Barry Lane might have picked one off, but they didn’t. Miguel is great though. He seems to be getting better with age, and he is playing some great golf. You don’t mind losing a record to a guy like that. He’s a great character.
“I had the record for 11 years, which is a long time. I was very proud of it and I still am, to be the second oldest. I remember when Neil Coles was the oldest winner (at 48 years and 14 days when he won the 1982 Sanyo Open) and I was young at the time. It seemed ridiculous, a guy winning at his age, and then I got his record. It’s crazy, the clock keeps ticking and before you know it you are there.”
Coles, of course, now holds the record for the oldest winner on the Senior Tour following his victory in the 2002 Lawrence Batley Seniors Open at the remarkable age of 67 years and 276 days. While Smyth’s own success shows no sign of slowing down, he admits that particular target is probably beyond even him.
“I think his record on the Senior Tour is out of reach,” he said. “Neil was exceptional in a lot of ways. I don’t think I can go that long. I think I will stick to my own record of just winning in my 60s.”
Should Smyth be able to carry forward his form of 2012, he stands every chance of achieving that personal milestone.
Attaining his highest level of consistency in a decade on the Senior Tour, Smyth recorded his highest number of top ten finishes in a season, in addition to his victory at Woburn – his second triumph in three years at the English venue – and he believes that only health problems towards the end of the campaign prevented further success.
“It was a very good year for me,” said Smyth. “I always consider a good year is when you get a win, and obviously I did that at Woburn and I played a lot of good golf after that and had a lot of top tens.
“Overall then I was very happy with the year. I ran into a bit of form at the end of the year and found a bit of confidence with my swing. I actually felt like I could have won again. I ran into a bit of bad health though which I feel stopped me winning. I had bad flu for about six weeks but I refused to stop playing because I was in form. I think if I had been a bit better health-wise I might have won again.
“I seem to be picking up one title a year since I came back from America, which is nice. You try to get your best form every week and get a win. Sometimes you get off to a good start and find your game. It’s hard to come from behind with three round events, as you don’t have as much time.
“When you look at last year it was my joint best Order of Merit finish since 2005. I had a big year then, finishing second in the Senior Open and when you do something like that it is a big cheque, so in many ways last year was my best for consistency. To play that well at 59 is great. I still feel good and it would be great to win again this year.”