Lee Janzen doesn’t hit a golf ball quite the way he once did. But to the untrained eye, the difference is minute.
Even at 47, and more than 25 years into a career during which he has won two U.S. Open championships and nearly $16 million in earnings, Janzen still has most of what he had in the old days.
It’s never easy growing older as a professional athlete. But in golf, at least, Janzen can still plug away as he approaches 50, a notion unfathomable – aside from major league pitcher Jamie Moyer – in other sports.
So while Janzen bides his time until joining the Champions Tour in three years, he’s doing what he can to keep his skills, and his golf mind, sharp. And if that means dropping from the PGA Tour, where he was a star in his 20s and 30s, to the Nationwide Tour, so be it.
“Golf will go away someday,’’ said Janzen, whose up-and-down round Thursday in the Wichita Open at Crestview produced a three-under 68. “I don’t know when. It could be next week, it could be when I’m 70.”
Until then, Janzen works strenuously on keeping his body in shape and trusts that his mental approach will remain locked in. He was disappointed in his three bogeys Thursday, saying after the round that favorable course conditions should have taken bogey out of the equation. But he did have four birdies and an eagle on the par-5 No. 14.
Janzen still plays in a few PGA Tour events, but is determined to spend most of his time on the Nationwide Tour, hopeful that strong tournament finishes will help him with his PGA status for 2013.
A U.S. Open champion in 1995 and 1998, and a strong contender for a few other majors, Janzen said he’s still having fun on the golf course. More fun, even, than he sometimes had when he was playing so well on the big tour, when golf was too much of his focus.
“When I make golf my god, my idol, and put it as the No. 1 thing, then generally unhappiness ensues,” said Janzen, who grew up in Baltimore before going to college in Florida. “That’s happened to me before. I talk to my fellow brothers out here on the (Nationwide) tour when we go to Bible study and it’s something we’re all guilty of at some point.”
The lure of professional golf invites addiction for those who crave to perfect their game, Janzen said. It becomes the only thing that matters, more important than friends and family.
“When we make it about our results, where we finish, this guy’s got more wins than I do – you think your career has to be at a certain level or you’re always frustrated,” Janzen said. “Golf’s always more enjoyable when it’s not the No. 1 thing. And it seems like it’s a little bit easier to play, too.”
That doesn’t mean Janzen doesn’t grind or invest in every shot, whether it’s on the course or the practice green. His devotion to golf hasn’t waned, but his scope outside of the game has gotten bigger.
He and Derby’s Woody Austin, another refugee from the PGA Tour who shot a disappointing three-over 74 on Thursday, are going through similar things. Austin, 48, also has been showing up a lot more at Nationwide events as he awaits an opportunity to play on the Champions Tour.
“Woody’s a phenomenal athlete,” Janzen said. “I haven’t played much golf with him lately, but I’m sure he’s kind of in the same place I am. We do enough things really well enough of the time to make us believe we should be doing it all the time.”
Neither Janzen nor Austin is a long hitter, which has become more and more of a disadvantage.
“In the old days the longest guy was only 20 yards longer than the shortest guy,’’ Janzen said. “Now it’s an 80-yard gap. Setting up the courses now is tough and sometimes there’s nothing you can do about it. The long hitters have a tremendous advantage.
“In the old days I could figure something out and at least get it out there with them. But there’s no way I can hit with Dustin Johnson, Robert Garrigus, J.D. Holmes and some of these guys today. I don’t even think there’s a fitness regimen I could do that would allow me to increase my swing speed five miles an hour. And if there was, who knows? I could hurt myself doing it.”
Janzen relies on his wile, which doesn’t usually betray him. He said he’s putting much better this year than last, when he had the dreaded yips and was almost guaranteed to miss anything from six feet or farther.
“My putting is probably the biggest reasons why 68s and 69s are showing up on my card instead of 72s and 73s,” said Janzen, who is playing in his third Nationwide Tour event of the season.
In his most recent tournament, Janzen finished in a tie for second at the Stadion Classic in Athens, Ga., where he was 16-under.
The battle to be the best golfer he can be is constant. There’s no time to relax, but Janzen has been able to mix some perspective in with his ambition to excel.
On paper, these might not be Janzen’s best days as a professional golfer. But his years of experience have taught him that it’s best not to judge just what’s on paper.