Just hours before starting his 20th season on the PGA Tour, Hal Sutton had his face buried in a towel while stretched out on a trainer's table at Metropolitan Golf Club in Australia.
Four small bruises, arranged like dots on dice, were courtesy of a physical therapist who had been digging his fingers into Sutton's lower back so he could play in the first round of the Match Play Championship.
"I look at it like every year is going to be my last," Sutton said, and there was evidence to suggest that might be the case in 2001.
Five months earlier in the PGA Championship, a right hip was the source of so much pain that the 42-year-old Sutton looked twice his age as he hobbled around Valhalla, refusing to quit because his father taught him otherwise.
Last year in Dallas, he was limping from tendinitis in his left ankle.
One could only wonder whether age might finally catch up with Sutton, whether he would win again on the PGA Tour or play on another Ryder Cup team.
"I'm trying to defy that age factor," Sutton said. "I'd like to think it's further away from me than what some other people might believe."
He was right. On Sunday, Sutton summoned enough strength for a 3-under 69 in wicked winds on the TPC at The Woodlands. And he still had enough left to scoop up two of his three young daughters and hoist another trophy.
By winning the Houston Open, Sutton joined an elite group.
It was his sixth PGA Tour victory since turning 40, tying him for fifth with Ben Hogan, Tom Kite and Greg Norman. Sam Snead leads the list with 17 victories since turning 40.
"If there is a sport that maybe an older guy can compete in, it's golf," said Sutton, who turns 43 on Saturday. "And you know, those three little girls you saw run out on the green, they have a way of making me feel younger than I really am."
The challenge of competing past one's prime is as much mental as physical. Hogan was 41 and still battered from a near-fatal car accident when he won the U.S. Open and British Open in 1953. Curtis Strange is 46 and feels almost as good physically as he did when he won his second straight U.S. Open in 1989. That turned out to be his last victory.
"If you could turn back the clock and be 35 again with your existing body, you'd be fine," Strange said. "But it's getting motivated to play, motivated to do the work."
His body might creak. He could use a month off. But Sutton is racing time, milking the most out of what he has left. His mind is still fresh, his energy level high, all because of a 10-year stretch that he calls the "bleakest, blackest spot you can think of."
From 1988 to 1997, he won only one of the 289 tournaments he entered. He was never among the top 20 players on the money list. He had only one top-10 in a major championship, and in two years qualified only for the PGA Championship because he was a past champion.
Sutton was embarrassed to be seen on the driving range, never sure where the ball was going. When he stood on the tee, all he saw was the rough.
Would he be winning as much now, in his early 40s, if he had not gone through such a nasty slump in the prime of his career?
"I don't think so," Sutton said Tuesday from the Greater Greensboro Classic, where he is the defending champion.