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Tiger turning 40 -- less of a benchmark age than you might think

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For Nicklaus, game improved after turning 40 (0:58)

Jack Nicklaus doesn't think turning 40 makes much of a difference for a pro golfer. In fact, the 18-time major winner told ESPN.com's Michael Collins that he got better after his 40th birthday, winning two majors in 1980. (0:58)

Tiger Woods is turning 40, just the latest in a lengthy string of events reminding us that he's well into the back-nine of his career. Or as Woods himself often says, "Father Time is undefeated."

While the world debates Woods' age in "golf years" and just how much gas he has left in the tank, at least one subsection of observers is scoffing at the notion that he's too old. In fact, ask some of the game's senior statesmen about turning 40, and they're likely to break into what sounds like a Henny Youngman routine.

"After you get to be 40 years old," 51-year-old Lee Janzen said, "the definition of an all-nighter isn't being out all night. It's sleeping through the night without having to go to the bathroom."

"My kids will say, 'That old guy we saw yesterday ...'" Tom Lehman, 56, said. "And I'm like, 'Wait a second -- that old guy was younger than me.'"

"Forty? That's too long ago," Hale Irwin, 70, said. "Ask me something like what I did yesterday -- and I'll tell you I can't remember that, either."

Laughs aside, most players with 40 in their rearview mirrors considered it more speed bump than roadblock. That includes the only man with more major championship victories than Woods -- and the one with whom he is so frequently compared.

"I remember that I had a bad year at 39 and a good year at 40," 75-year-old Jack Nicklaus recalled.

He's right. In 1979, at the age of 39, Nicklaus decided to tinker with his swing. He played just 12 events, claimed only three top-10 finishes and didn't win a PGA Tour event for the first time since turning professional nearly two decades earlier. One year later, Nicklaus bounced back, winning the 16th and 17th major titles of his career at the ripe age of 40.

"Forty was just a number for me," he explained. "It really didn't make any difference. The hardest birthday I had was 65, because I knew 65 was the year I wasn't going to play anymore."

If you're looking for a group of golfers to take pity on Woods for hitting the Big Four-Oh, don't look to those who have already passed that benchmark, because most will simply echo Nicklaus' sentiments about the occasion.

"Whether you're 39 or 42 or whatever it may be, it really doesn't make a difference," Bernhard Langer, 58 said. "It's all in your head. Some 40-year-olds feel like 20, and others feel like 60."

"So many good things have happened to guys in their careers after the age of 40," Lehman pointed out. "If you can keep yourself healthy and keep yourself motivated, your forties can be very fruitful."

Of course, therein lies the rub of the green for Woods. He has been playing competitive golf since before kindergarten. He has spent countless hours beating balls at the range, searching for secrets in the dirt. He has endured multiple surgeries to his knee and -- more recently -- his back, with two microdiscectomies and a follow-up procedure in the past two years, if you're scoring at home.

And so, most believe it's not Woods' age that will hinder a comeback as much as his health. After all, no professional golfer could continue playing competitively after three back operations, right?

Wrong -- and Fuzzy Zoeller is living proof. Zoeller, now 64, underwent his first back surgery right after the 1984 U.S. Open. He spent six weeks in a hospital and lost 30 pounds, then had to work his way back to just walking, let alone swinging a club again.

The next year, though, in just his third tournament back, he won the Bay Hill Classic. Within a few years, Zoeller would have another back surgery, then a third, but each time returned to a competitive role.

"The one thing you can't do after back surgery is go in and try to tear what the doctors have already repaired," Zoeller explained. "I think that's where Tiger has probably made his big mistake. He's tried to get back and do the exercising and stuff he normally did. You've got to let Mother Nature take her course; you've got to let her heal."

As he turns 40 and, possibly, a bit wiser, it appears this will be the strategy Woods employs going forward. Rather than rushing back to competition as he has done in the past, it seems he has resigned to let the healing process take its time.

When he is healthy enough to play golf for the first time in his fourth decade, the scenario for Woods might not be as bleak as many believe. At least, that's what those golfers who have lived through it contend. And hey, there's a bright side to getting older, too.

As Janzen explained, tongue firmly planted in cheek, "It took until I was 50 until I started hitting it shorter. But one of the benefits is that you start losing your hearing, so things don't bother you, because you can't hear them. You think you're hitting it further, because you can't see where it lands."