Turning 50: Three golden tips from great sporting champions.

18 June 2024, Tuesday

Turning 50 is one of those big birthdays, partly because we’re amazed we managed to get this far – and partly because the next milestone is 60.  Some people have a crisis. Rob Opie, on the other hand, is taking his 50th birthday this week as a gift. He has made a study of the world’s sporting greats and he has watched what differentiates those from the very talented who never make it to the top. He shares their lessons, and his, for turning 50, with us here. It’s an inspiring read. Happy birthday, Rob! – Jackie Cameron

 By Robert Opie*


Robert Opie is turning 50. Instead of having a crisis, he is embracing the opportunity to tackle life like a champion.

This week I sat down to plan my scary one, as most people like to call it. How did the half-way party sneak up so fast? Turning 50 can be daunting or a gift of possibility.

In the golfing world, 50 is when the truly great golfers elevate their careers to the next level. Tired of competing against Rory’s booming drive, they go on.

Bernard Langer is an inspiration at 57. So is Tom Watson at age 65. And what about that cigar-smoking Spaniard Miguel Angel Jimenez, who has just turned 50.

Ernie Els must be wishing he could turn 50 tomorrow and move on to the lucrative and less physically demanding senior’s tour. I think he even surprised himself by winning the 2012 British Open age 42. So, what can we learn from these great sporting champions as they take on the seniors’ world of new possibilities?

If you are green you grow, if you are ripe you rot

This year I have had the privilege to spend time with so many past and present great sporting champions from Joostie, right through to English Cricketer Jonathan Trott, who had to pull out of the Ashes tour.  As they grow a little older and little wiser, they all have invaluable insights to share, and share they do.

So, about to come out of the tunnel for my second half, I thought I would share with you some of the wisdom of these great champions.

First and foremost:

  1. Great Champions do not fight – they choose to conquer

We recently witnessed a fine example from one of our greatest, AB de Villiers. While our test match statistics are great, our one day team has failed to live up to expectations, so when they went to Zimbabwe last month to compete with the host nation and Australia, they were under pressure.

This was especially so, considering the seedy unpleasantness of the Newlands Test Match early this year when Australia came out on top – using mental dis-integration tactics. But, AB simply upped the game in Zimbabwe – by choosing to conquer, not fight.

“They can sledge all they want; I don’t mind it at all. To me it’s  all about the  privilege of  facing up to the best bowlers in the world – it’s all  part of the game , but they must  also  realize that they can’t expect us to be mates off the field, if it gets very personal.”

AB played a game-changing card, by restoring balance to a situation that had threatened to become out of control. Class players do not make personal chirps.

One day later AB played an unbeaten innings of 136 not out, as SA went on to thrash Australia – and later go on to win in the final against Australia. How different would it have been  for France, if  Zinedine Zidane had  chosen not to fight, and reacted differently at  the 2006 World  Cup soccer final, before he head-butted an opponent. He was sent off and Italy triumphed. The greatest champions conquer – they do not fight, and it goes back many years to one Julius Caesar

                                                   I came. I saw. I conquered.

So, the Aussies had deliberate tactics to create what is called “a state of imbalance”. It worked throughout the Ashes Series against England, but it backfired on them when AB restored balance to “the bigger game” of cricket in Zimbabwe. Sportsmanship prevails over gamesmanship. The great champions just know that! Life is bigger than sport.

  1. Great Champions ‘take heed’

Ok let’s have a look at another example of how great champions choose to conquer, not fight. This learning comes from Everest where every great Everest explorer knows that one cannot bully the mountain, as the mountain always bites back. In April this year I wrote a blog on it when 16 died in one tragic day on the mountain.

The mountain always carries a message to all climbers who begin the accent, and life is the same. Unfortunately, we often choose to fight, not conquer.

This is the way that often leads to physical exhaustion, mental fatigue, disillusionment and ultimately a state of imbalance. Let’s just call it ultimate burn-out!

By the time we reach 50, we’ve all experienced some form of it, at some point in our professional and personal lives!  Well, I have seen and witnessed how the great champions of extreme – on Everest and in the Inkosi Albert Luthuli Cancer wards, do it differently.

They choose to conquer, not fight. They take heed. They listen to the message.

Every case of adversity or state of imbalance carries a message. Deciding to ignore or not taking heed of the message, is what can be termed shooting the messenger – a form of denial and arrogance.

A recent case in point was when many took offence to Moody’s downgrade of credit ratings for four of SA’s top banks, after the African Bank fiasco. But, Moody’s was just the messenger in this case!  Great champions take heed – they listen, they think twice and then they remove “all the wrong stuff” from their game plans. Sometimes, it requires what we term “a radical tactical shift” in one’s game plan.

  1.   Great Champions become humbler and humbler  

Roger Federer springs to mind. So does Jean de Villiers. He must have treasured the tribute paid to him by Dan Carter on receiving his 100th cap last week. So what lies behind “humbler”?

It’s “the unwritten law of gratitude” that great champions grasp at some point in their careers, some earlier than others. They appreciate every opportunity they get to compete at the very top level.

How sad it was to see Francois Steyn throw away his place in the Springbok team and along with it his rugby genius, all for the sake of money. In any case, he is one of the top five rugby earners in the world!

This is when mentorship is sadly missing. So how does the unwritten law of gratitude work? The best example I cite in seminars is being in a pub with acquaintances. You buy the first round, you expect a thank you. It does not happen, so you buy another round. There is no thank you again. So of course you shy away from buying any third round. In fact you probably take offence.

Well, the universe works like that as well. If one does not show gratitude for what one has been blessed with in life, it’s hardly likely that the universe is going to buy round three for you!

If Tiger Woods chose to conquer, and not fight everybody, if he could take heed and if he could become a little humbler, maybe his game will return to the high standards he had when his sole mentor – his Dad was still alive. A golfing genius, he would certainly win many more majors, but somehow he unwittingly chooses to cram his game plan full of ‘all the wrong stuff ’.


If we are all prone to this thing called burn-out, and it usually happens at the approximate age of 42 – often earlier for our sporting champions who are thrust onto the world stage far earlier – well, I say “come on the BIG FIFTY GIFT”!  Bernard, you better watch out for Ernie, and me for that matter! And I am sure that the cigar-smoking Spaniard has a few more tricks up his sleeve.


The wrong stuff creates mental fatigue on any Major Sunday. Mental fatigue is The No.1 enemy of a professional golfer!