Penchant for pensioners

The trend to seniors brings a new Open and a bonanza for Roberto de Vicenzo
July 06, 1980

The United States Golf Association, the curator of fairway history, put a doughty group of relics on display last week in presenting the first edition of the U.S. Senior Open, an event that rolled back the calendar and rekindled the competitive fires in a lot of players who used to burn up courses on a regular basis. Wrinkles may have crept into their faces after so many years and so many missed putts, and the hairlines may require a bit of rethatching, but the men at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y. still had the spirit from the days when they were young and brave and running against the wind. They may walk a bit gingerly, as if they had sand in their shoes, but the talent of a golfer, like that of a musician, weathers gracefully.

Take Roberto de Vicenzo. Through the years he has won, by his count, more than 200 titles around the world. On Sunday the 57-year-old resident of Buenos Aires triumphed again, shooting a final round of 70 that allowed him to run off and hide from the rest of the Senior Open field. His 72-hole total of 285 was four strokes ahead of amateur Bill Campbell, who came out of the pack with some late birdies. Former Masters champion Art Wall, who at 56 still has a Jr. behind his name and some magic left in his putter, wound up third, another stroke behind. De Vicenzo collected $20,000 for his efforts, an amount that would have staggered him five decades ago when he first started caddying and playing, using clubs someone had given him.

The USGA's definition of "senior" for last week's tournament was 55 years and older, as it has been for the long-standing Senior Amateur championships. The field of 150 was picked through a combination of exemptions plus sectional qualifying rounds. The names of those who teed off on Winged Foot's East Course included many the public can read on golf clubs or in record books: de Vicenzo, Wall, Julius Boros, Tommy Bolt, Charlie Sifford. Sam Snead was a last-minute withdrawal. He had hurt his back in, of all things, a driving contest. Which is the reason why, at 68, he's still known as Slammin' Sammy.

Unfortunately also, one certified senior superstar was not ready to jump on the USGA's nostalgia bandwagon. Ben Hogan was eligible for the tournament on many counts, and although his hands still sport calluses from constant work on the practice tee, Hogan no longer plays competitively—his battles with par are private affairs.

This new Senior Open, with a purse of $100,000, is only one of a growing group of tournaments devised for the game's elders. The Legends of Golf, a team event that began in 1978, has been a huge television success, and the PGA tour is planning a program of senior tournaments that may stretch to 10 next year. Arnold Palmer, now 50 and a favorite of American grandmothers everywhere, has let it be known that he will appear in a senior event in Charlotte, N.C. later this season.

Of course, age has taken its toll. Most of the gray panthers in the tournament were less concerned with winning than giving a good account of themselves. Good troupers all, they recognized the thin line between vaudeville and burlesque. Some have slowed to a creep, especially on the greens, but even in Friday's 90° heat, the stopwatch-conscious USGA stuck to its rule book and penalized two of them, Mike Fetchick and William Bergman, for slow play. And many players had to strain to follow the flight of their drives; the words most commonly heard on the tees were "Where did it go?" Beyond that, several competitors, including Bolt, were visiting chiropractors to work out the kinks in their backs. "It makes me feel great," said Ted Kroll, 60, a three-time Ryder Cup member, of such treatment, "but then I go out there and hit three shots and I'm walking around like a hunchback again." One entrant, a Canadian amateur champion named Nick Weslock, had an uncomplicated reason for limping. He plays with an artificial hip—and he made the cut.

Although some players—like Dick Metz, 72—were old enough to have appeared in the first Masters in 1934, the USGA did not retreat from its position that if the tournament is a national championship, the course should dish out more punishment than it absorbs. Winged Foot East, while a shade shorter than the club's West Course—the site of the 1929, 1959 and 1974 U.S. Opens—more than equals it in degree of difficulty. The East's devilishly contoured and elevated greens require finesse rather than strength and present challenge enough for a par of 36-35—71. De Vicenzo, for instance, missed a five-foot birdie putt on the 6th hole and left himself with a six-foot comeback. "These greens make you putt to the hole, not at it," explained Campbell, an amateur who is also a vice-president of the USGA.

The USGA decreed that the players would have to walk, that there would be no golf carts, as there are in some senior tournaments. On steamy Friday, with the sky white with pollution, many of the competitors were haggard as they trooped into the scorer's tent behind the 18th green. Said de Vicenzo, who achieved unwanted immortality by signing an incorrect scorecard in the 1968 Masters, thereby eliminating himself from a playoff: "In my country we stay in bed when the weather like this."

But while the tournament had its serious side—a lot of players were walking around with long faces after no one matched, much less broke, par in the opening round on Thursday—there was a sense of conviviality missing at most golf tournaments. It was like a class reunion. Former Masters champion Claude Harmon, for 33 years head pro at Winged Foot until he retired in 1977, was holding court again in the upstairs locker room. When Bolt said he liked the weather hot and humid, someone remembered that it was 102° when Tommy won the U.S. Open in Tulsa in 1958. And as de Vicenzo strolled through the parking lot on Saturday night, the leader by two strokes after three rounds, another competitor called out, "Good luck, Roberto." Said de Vicenzo, "See, that is the difference between now and the old days."

The night before, after two rounds, the tournament had seemed to belong to Campbell, a 57-year-old insurance broken from Huntington, W. Va. and the country's quintessential amateur—he has played in 35 U.S. Amateurs, winning once, and been on eight Walker Cup teams. That afternoon he had fired the week's first subpar round, a 68, and moved into the lead with a two-over 144, a stroke up on Wall and another ahead of Boros.

Campbell is the reigning U.S. Senior Amateur champion and a man familiar with the term "old." He uses old golf clubs (he bought his current woods 25 years ago), drives old cars (a '55 Imperial), wears old clothes and believes in the old-fashioned work ethic. He limits his golf to weekends and sporadic evening play when he tours the course with his golden retriever.

That is not to say that Campbell does not take the game seriously. A few years ago he needed an operation on his shoulder to repair the accumulated damage from hitting practice balls hour after hour. During the operation, the surgeon put Campbell's arm through a complete simulated backswing before he sewed him up, just to make certain the golfer could pursue his passion upon recovery.

Tied with de Vicenzo for fourth place at the halfway point was the famous raconteur Al Besselink, 58. After rounds of 75-72, Bessy visited the press room. "I play out of the Jockey Club in Las Vegas," he said. "I'm the director of golf, but we don't have a golf course. The first time I pulled up in front of the place, the doorman said, 'You can't park your car there.' I said, 'Listen. Go get some paint and put my name on that spot.' That's where I've parked ever since. That's the kind of job I have, because my best friend owns the place."

The way Besselink tells it, when he played the tour, professional golf was just an excuse for having fun. "There are so many stories," Besselink says. "Once Bob Rosburg and I played in the Mexican Open. They paid our way down. After the third round we went out for some fun. We'd been drinking wine, and about 5 a.m. we were walking down this street, singing. The tournament officials found out about it and complained we weren't taking things seriously. I said, 'I'll bet you $1,000 one of us wins it,' and they took me up on it. Well, on the 1st hole I hit the ball three times and I'm not even on the green That was end of me. When I finished, I ran out to find Rosburg on the 17th hole. I told him, Two more pars, we win the money.' He shanked his second shot into a sand trap. Now I'm holding my head in my hands. He holes it out of the sand for a birdie. I let out a whoop and yell, 'Ros, that shot killed more Mexicans than the Alamo.' "

On Saturday, Besselink three-putted five of the last eight holes and finished with a 79 that knocked him out of the chase. But he was always better at winning bets than trophies. Once, on the eve of the San Diego Open, he bet $1,000 at 10-to-l odds that he would shoot 66 or better the next day. He did. Later, golf officials wanted to penalize him for gambling. "What're you, crazy?" Bessy sputtered. "A man bets he'll shoot 66, you shouldn't penalize him, you should put him in an insane asylum."

Campbell also had a bad third round, going over par on the 1st, 4th and 7th holes for a front-nine 39, and that opened the way for de Vicenzo.

Roberto had arrived on the 1st tee Saturday feeling a little queasy. He had had the flu off and on for some time and was too ill to play in a senior tournament held in Atlantic City, N.J. the previous week. But a birdie on the par-five 2nd hole Saturday was like a shot of antibiotics. "You play good, you feel good," he said, and then went on to shoot four more birdies for a 68 that left him with a 54-hole total of 215, two over par, and two strokes ahead of Wall.

Many people think de Vicenzo deserves a good share of the credit for the new popularity of senior golf. Last year he and Boros wowed a television audience with five straight birdies as they beat Bolt and Wall in a playoff at the Legends of Golf. And purists regard the Argentine as one of the alltime best manipulators of the golf club. "I been lousy putter all my life," de Vicenzo said at Winged Foot when asked if senility had yet crept into his short game. "On the tee, sometimes I catch ball and it go like I am young. The game not change much. But the mentality change. The concentration is not like years ago."

Wall agreed. His swing felt fine, he said, after rounds of 74-71-72, but his nerves were jumping. "I'm trying not to try too hard," he said.

Over the years, Wall has racked up 42 holes in one, an incredible figure. But his greatest moment came in the 1959 Masters when he birdied five of the last six holes to beat Cary Middlecoff by a stroke. "I remember when we started the round," he said. "Boros and I had about six people watching us. When we finished, we had the whole golf course following us. They are good memories."

Those were the days, my friend. Last Sunday, Wall and de Vicenzo teed it up again and went at each other as they had over the years, as they had when they were young and strong and walked down the center of the fairways, when nothing could touch them. It was like that again for a few holes Sunday until de Vicenzo pulled away, and it meant a lot to these gray-haired men.

TWO PHOTOSDe Vicenzo and Art Wall (above) dueled on the final day until Wall's bogeys did him in. THREE PHOTOSFamiliar faces included (from left) Tommy Bolt, Julius Boros and cigar-chomper Charlie Sifford.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)