The Legends of Golf is that event for the game's immortals that annually furnishes televised proof that it is possible to get your driver and your long irons all the way around your stomach. It's also the tournament that proves from time to time, as it did last week, that Sam Snead is the greatest golfer who never died.
Down there at the Onion Creek Club in Austin, Texas, Samuel Jackson gave us yet another hint that he's going to be around in the year 2000, winning his 5,000th trophy. Snead will be 70 years old on May 27, but he was making the better shots as he and his 52-year-old partner, Don January, won the fifth renewal of this seniors (50 or older) spectacular. They came in ahead of the other paunches and creaking bodies competing for the richest ($450,000) of the over-50 purses by a mere 12 strokes.
Snead's swing is a little shorter these days, but it still has that classy old look, even if his putting style resembles something out of a carpentry manual. While the Ralph Guldahls of the tournament were striking their three-irons 130 yards, Snead was becoming the first man who can say he won a professional golf tournament in each of six decades. He started winning back in 1936, and it looks as if he's never going to stop.
When Snead was asked if he realized he had been winning golf tournaments over such a long stretch, he said, "Is that right? How long are decades nowadays?"
As January said Sunday evening, "I can't conceive of any athlete in any sport ever reaching what Sam has done. I just played three rounds of golf with a man who'll be 70 soon and he never hit a single iron that wasn't right at the pin."
Granted Onion Creek played to only 6,600 yards, and granted the oldtimers were allowed to ride in carts for three rounds of competition, and granted they were allowed to improve their lies, even in the rough, because of the rain that shortened the event from 72 to 54 holes. Still there's no reason for a 69-year-old man to make 14 birdies himself and lead his partner to rounds of 62, 60 and 61—unless, of course, he's Sam Snead.
For the three days, Snead and January were a record 27 under par. Near is what the runners-up—the teams of Roberto de Vicenzo and Bob Goalby, Gene Littler and Bob Rosburg and Bob Toski and Chin Sei Ha—were if you want to call San Antonio near Austin. That would put them only 80 miles back, at 15 under. In brief, Snead and January led by one after the opening round, by eight after Saturday and finally by the dozen that got them $50,000 apiece.
Precisely what Snead and January did was blend their games so perfectly that they never made a bogey while playing the par 3s in 10 under, the par 4s in nine under and the par 5s in eight under. If this proves anything, it's that seniors like shorter holes. Over the last few holes on Sunday, when Snead and January were supposedly just trying to get to the clubhouse, old Sam up and birdied the 15th and 16th. At which point January turned to him and said, "Man, how many do you want to win by, Sam?"
Replied Snead, "You never know, them folks up ahead might be cheatin'."
The first Legends in 1978 gave birth to what has since become the Senior Tour. In that initial event, regarded then as simply something quaint, the 65-year-old Snead teamed with Gardner Dickinson to win by one stroke over the Australian pair of Peter Thomson and Kel Nagle and set a pattern. Until last week's tournament, every Legends had been closely contended if not downright thrilling.
The second tournament saw one of the truly fantastic finishes in golfing annals, regardless of the players' ages. Nothing that happened anywhere on the big tour in 1979 came near equaling it. Late on the afternoon of Sunday, April 29, four old guys birdied everything but the capitol building in Austin through six sudden-death playoff holes before de Vicenzo and Julius Boros finally beat Tommy Bolt and Art Wall Jr. That Legends finish did as much as anything to draw to senior golf the attention it deserved.
Bolt and Wall returned in 1980 to redeem themselves for losing that playoff, winning the Legends by two strokes over the 67-year-old Snead and his new partner, January. There were a lot of jokes that year about Snead dumping Dickinson to get himself a younger partner. "I'm just looking for someone who can putt," Snead said.
Last year's Legends came down to the final hole before the fairly young team of Littler, then 50, and Rosburg, 54, defeated the same old Australians, Thomson and Nagle, by a stroke. By then it was significant that Arnold Palmer had become a regular competitor at the Legends as well as on the senior circuit. As Rosburg was saying the other day, Palmer, who's still a big attraction wherever he goes, can almost singlehandedly keep the 50-and-over fellows employed.
Rosburg added that it may well be up to Palmer to keep senior play vibrant over the next eight years. "We're coming up on a period where we're only going to pick up a couple of marquee names—Doug Sanders and Chi Chi Rodriguez," he said. "After that there'll be a five-year gap before anybody big [read that Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino] turns 50," Rosburg said.
More events like the Legends will help. For one, there's talk of a junior-senior event coming up in a year or so, one that might have a regular spot on the regular PGA tour. This would be a tournament in which the Jerry Pates and Tom Watsons would each take a 50-or-over partner for 72 holes of best-ball competition. The young chaps would do well to support such a tournament, because in case the Pates and Watsons don't realize it yet, they too will become seniors one day. The Junior-Senior Classic, or whatever it will be called, is likely to replace a stop on the PGA's calendar.
At present there are 12 official events on the PGA Senior Tour, plus five others that don't get the seal of approval. The Legends, for example, is considered unofficial for reasons that are too arcane for anyone to understand—perhaps because the tournament wasn't PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman's idea—but the money spends, as they say. Naturally, the youngest of the seniors are dominating the old guy circuit—your Januarys and your Miller Barbers, men who are still spry enough to play both tours.
Barber, 51, the indomitable Mr. X, got on the senior circuit last year in time to win the Peter Jackson Champions in Vancouver, the Suntree Seniors Classic in Melbourne, Fla. and the PGA Seniors' Championship in Miami; altogether he banked $97,386 in what could legitimately be called a sideline. Littler and Goalby won more seniors money than Barber did last year, but they didn't have as much in golf earnings if you count in Mr. X's earnings on the regular tour. Overall, Miller dropped his ball for a total of $146,308, thank you very much.
A question remains in the minds of most of the older chaps about the future of their circuit. Goalby, who has a career in broadcasting, as does Rosburg, wonders if senior golf might just be a fad. "There's a newness to it that could wear off," he says. "When it was just the Legends, it was unique. Even when it was just the Legends and a couple others, it was still unique. But now I don't know."
The essence of what senior golf is all about could be found in the Onion Creek locker room one day last week, with the paunches scattered all over the place. At one point, Jimmy Demaret, one of the fathers of the Legends, stood with four club members who had all rolled up their pants legs, comparing the scars where sections of veins had been removed for bypass operations. They were telling Demaret that bypasses were nothing to fear.
"Fellows, I'm going to do it a different way," Demaret said.
"What way is that?" he was asked.
"Go fishing and drink more beer," he said.
A while later it was George Fazio's turn. George was standing by a locker, crouching over and swinging an imaginary golf club. He was explaining how to get your swing around your stomach.
"You've got to stick out your fanny as far as you can without falling on your face," Fazio said.
"Then what?" somebody asked.
"Pretend you're Porky Oliver," said Fazio.
Later on Dick Mayer was sitting at a table complaining about his eyesight. "With glasses I can see ants on the ground," he said, "but for some reason the ball looks too big to go in the hole."
At that moment Toski walked by. "Hi, Dick, you sure look good, son," Toski said. "Who's your embalmer?"