By Gary Van Sickle
January 20, 2005

The senior tour lives.

All right, it's officially called the Champions Tour now, but I don't think I'll ever stop thinking of it as the senior tour. I stopped in last week to check out the tour's best-run event, the Bruno's Memorial Classic in Birmingham, Ala.

Here's what I learned:

• Bruce Fleisher is still one of golf's nice guys. I had a chance to play a round with him Wednesday in a PGA Tour-arranged outing at nearby Old Overton Club, a Tom Fazio-Jerry Pate track that is my new favorite course in Alabama (not that I've seen many).

Fleisher is a good guy to hang with. For one thing, maybe his easygoing and sweet swing tempo will rub off on you, although it didn't seem to help my own lift, clean and jerk action. He is humble almost to the point of being overconfident, which is refreshing.

I think part of his good humor is related to the sunglasses he wears. I didn't get the brand name but he insisted I try them on. They're German, run about $900, and their slightly yellow tint gives a wonderful photographic, Spielberg-perfect lighting aura to the world. He offered to hook me up but hey, they're $891 more than I usually spend on shades and to be blunt, I don't think I'd be comfortable wearing sunglasses I need insurance for. They were, however, awesome.

Fleisher also asked me an interesting what-if question: If you were offered $10 million in cash to give up golf completely -- couldn't play it, couldn't watch it, couldn't read about it -- would you take the money?

After careful consideration, I said no. What am I going to do on vacation -- play tennis? Can you imagine missing Sunday's round of this year's Masters? Fleisher saw the answer coming and wasn't surprised. He said he asked a big-time CEO the same question recently (I'll leave his name out of it) and upped the money to $50 million. The CEO told him, "I've already got more than that. I'd play golf."

• Charles Barkley won't turn pro when he's 50. And if anybody ever revives that World's Worst Avid Golfer Contest, Sir Charles would be a contender.

"His swing defies description," said Tom Watson, who played with Barkley in Thursday's pro-am. "He's got the yips on the downswing. I've never seen that before. He's played with the best -- Tiger, Nicklaus, everybody. They've all tried to help him. I told him, close your eyes at the top of the swing. He tried, it didn't work.

"I admire the guy. He puts his game, if you call it a game, on display for public harassment. People know what to expect. He's probably the only guy who causes the spectators make a wide berth. They've seen him hit it and they get out of the way. He parred one hole today. Charles says his game is a mental thing, like a guy shooting free throws who can make 10 of 10 in practice but can't hit the rim in a game."

Some PGA Tour officials asked Barkley to stop by and spend a minute with the media as he was making the turn during the pro-am. Sir Charles, clearly in serious golf mode, graciously chatted while wiping sweat off his face.

"I'm a golfer and not a very good one," he admitted.

Asked if he had a future on the Champions Tour, he didn't seem to get that it was a humorous question.

"No, I'm 41," he said. "I think Kenny Perry and Vijay Singh are 41, too. People need to realize when they turn 50 and think they're going to turn pro, those are the guys you'd be playing against. Michael (Jordan, for those of you from Saturn's seventh moon) said he was going to play senior golf, I said he was nuts."

Asked if there were any fatalities on the front nine, Barkley said, "They haven't killed me yet. Check the small print on the ticket. You're here at your own risk. I've seen better players then me hit people."

• Watson's pro-am group also included ex-Auburn star Bo Jackson, who played profesional football and baseball. Jackson looks as ripped as ever, but he does walk a little gingerly due to his medically enhanced hip.

"He [Jackson] went to Kuwait at Christmas to entertain the troops and took 200,000 meals with him," Watson said. "I bet you didn't know that about him, did you?"


• Hale Irwin, 58, isn't done yet. You saw him get his 39th tour win the previous week and he was in contention again at Bruno's. "Hale has dominated this tour," Watson said. "Probably the only reason I came out of last year as Player of the Year was because Irwin's back went out on him at the U.S. open and he couldn't play for a while. He's the cream of the crop out here."

• Your 2005 Champions Tour rookie of the year? Everyone expected it to be Peter Jacobsen or Jay Haas. Well, Haas is so busy raking in cash on the PGA Tour that he still hasn't teed it up with the geezers yet and Jacobsen recently underwent hip surgery, so he'll be out for a while.

The sleeper pick? Try Eduardo Romero of Argentina. He turns 50 in July and the word is, he can't wait.

• Without the claw-putting grip, Craig Stadler might not be the leading challenger to knock Irwin off his perch as the Champion Tour's top dog.

"I've always had putter issues," Stadler said. "I was a wonderful putter in my teens and 20s and I relied on it because I hit the ball every which way. I can't tell you how many times I hit seven or eight greens and still shot 5-under par. The putter went south in the late '80s and it didn't come back for a while. I changed to the paintbrush, the Calcavecchia -- whatever you call it -- two and a half years ago and it's made a world of difference. In early 2000, I was averaging 32 putts a round. I've got that down to 29.5 or so now. That's 10 shots a week in a four-round tournament. I was missing cuts by two and three shots. It wasn't fun."

• The seniors have the right idea about where their tour is going. They're trying to do things differently, be more fan friendly and get some attention.

"We are not the PGA Tour," Kite said. "If we try to be like the PGA Tour, we're going to fail or play second fiddle. We don't have Tiger, we don't have Phil. We need to be looked at in a different light. What players give out here is so far beyond what the PGA Tour players give. I'm blown away by what they're not giving. You go do a pro-am draw party at a PGA Tour event and you won't see one player. You go to one of ours, you'll see a minimum of eight or 10 players and usually it's more like 30 or 40. We need to separate ourselves from the PGA Tour."

Kite is absolutely right. About all of it.

• Bruce Lietzke, another smart guy, said much of same, and added a good estimate: "On the PGA Tour, it's probably 80 percent competition and 20 percent entertainment. On our tour, it's almost a flip-flop. Probably 30 or 40 percent competition and the rest entertainment. We have to emphasize entertainment more. That's where we can find our niche."

• Having the Champions Tour on The Golf Channel is also a good move. Just about everyone in senior golf admits the move to CNBC years back was a huge error. The financial guys quit watching that channel because the stock market went in the dumper after 9/11 and the diehard golf fans didn't know where to find CNBC -- and some simply didn't bother to find it. Now the Champions Tour is reaching the fanatics who leave their TVs set to the Golf Channel all day (and you know who you are).

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