For three days the sun-washed fir-and spruce-covered Portland (Ore.) Golf Club resembled nothing so much as the rolling green gardens of a sleepy retirement home. The deeply tanned elders strolling the grounds might have been playing croquet instead of competing in the most significant sports event in the world for men over 50, the third U.S. Senior Open Championship. Then, on the fourth day, when seven august oldtimers had bunched themselves and a load of over-par numbers at the top of the leader board, a relative kid broke the tournament open. The quiet, semi-invisible man they call Mr. X, Miller Barber, at 51 one of the youngest players in the 150-man field, relieved the seniors of some mild embarrassment by playing the kind of golf they insist they can still play, and became $28,648 richer for it. It was important to the seniors that the tournament be won with the kind of golf Barber played, and Mr. X greeted his victory with something approaching reverence.
"I just played one of the best rounds of golf in one of the biggest tournaments of my life," he said. "Truly. If you're an amateur you want to win the U.S. Amateur. If you're a professional you want to win the U.S. Open. If you're a senior you want to win the Senior Open. As far as I'm concerned, I've just won my second major championship." (He won the Senior PGA last year.)
Of course, for all but Arnold Palmer and a handful of others, senior golf means a new lease on life. Said Bob Goalby, 53, "You compete for 30 years, then they put you out to pasture. You feel like you want to die. Now they got us watching our weight, staying in shape, beating balls—it's fantastic." Said Peter Thomson, the 52-year-old Australian who won five British Opens, "We older fellows could play, but it's very lucky we can play for money, isn't it?"
What one sees when watching the seniors are a lot of funny putting styles and out-of-fashion golf clothes, and somehow it's comforting. Ken Towns, a 54-year-old pro from Graeagle, Calif., who was in contention all the way, wore a pair of threadbare blue pants with little red golfers all over them. There wasn't a blond head of hair to be found out there—on many heads there was no hair at all. Often one would hear a player mutter, "Where'd it go?" after a tee shot. But there were a lot of beautiful, slow swings to watch, too. Many players left their drivers in their bags, the better to stay in the tight fairways and also to prove that slow and easy works very nearly as well as hard and powerful.
July 18, 1982
Still, until Sunday, the Senior Open was more like a company outing than a serious competition. Finally, Barber sparked life into a desultory tournament in which, during the first three days, subpar rounds were almost nonexistent. Only three players were able to better par 71 over Portland's 6,439 yards. On Sunday, Barber's brilliant 65 was one of four sub-par rounds. It gave him a 72-hole total of two-under 282, four shots better than Gene Littler and Dan Sikes, nine better than defending champion Arnold Palmer, 52, who disappointed everybody with his final-round 74.
Throughout the week in Portland, the most frequently asked question was, "What time does Arnie tee off?" After that, it was mostly, "Why isn't Arnie shooting 64s?" To be sure, although Ben Hogan won the 1945 Portland Open at the same site with the incredibly low score of 27 under, the course played inexplicably tough—so tough that most of the pros, old and older, were at a loss to explain why, and were more than a little bit uncomfortable about their showing.
Part of the problem, of course, was the tight fairways and the standard deep Open-style rough, which presents much greater difficulty to the soft-swinging seniors than to the kids on the regular tour. But the greatest obstacle seemed to be the baking sun, which kept the grass dry and the temperatures near 90°. For players who had been accustomed to riding in carts—even the pros who regularly play the 17-event senior circuit—this was a hardship, and a few of them weren't too proud to deny it.
"Shoot," said Sikes after his second-round 69 put him two strokes behind Littler, "I haven't walked a course in about a year."
For the first three days, the last six holes were the real killers. Going into Sunday's final 18, the seven leaders were a total of 29 over par. "I don't know what it is," said a bemused Palmer on Saturday afternoon, while insisting that the heat and the walking didn't bother him. "In fact, I could go out and play another 18 holes right now." The most bothersome hole was 15, a 460-yard par-4, which is normally played by members as a-485-yard par-5. Littler bogeyed it three times, Sikes and Gay Brewer bogeyed it twice, Goalby made two bogeys and a double. Only Barber had played those killer holes in even par.
"I just don't understand it," said Goalby, unabashedly embarrassed for himself and his brethren after not a single player broke par during Saturday's third round. "I knew I was going to shoot under 70 today," he said. "Man, this course is eating us up alive. I guess it's intimidating. It's long and narrow; you get to worrying about out of bounds here, bunkers there; you squeeze the club, pinch it, try to guide the ball, steer it, instead of just grabbing your driver and letting it rip like the kids do."
Then, Goalby might well have gotten to the heart of the matter: "We older fellas think we're so smart, see. We over-read, overthink, instead of really letting it happen. I got news. Our nerves—all of us—aren't as good as they used to be."
Of course, like the fans, the players also kept watching for Palmer. How could they help it? The Senior Open, in fact the entire Senior Tour, can fairly accurately be described as the Palmer Circuit. Even the USGA recognized two years ago that the Senior Open wouldn't attract flies without Arnie, so it lowered the age limit from 55 to 50.
Palmer promptly joined up and won last year's Open at Oakland Hills, outside Detroit. Until the very end, he was naturally the man to beat at Portland as well. "With us," said Goalby on Friday, "Arnie's a better player than when he goes out with the kids. He doesn't do some of the things he tries to do with them. He knows he beat all of our butts all our lives, so why can't he do it now, right?"
And just as Goalby was speaking of him, Arnie, who had a 73 in the first round, went out and began trying to make the tournament his, nailing bold birdie putts on 2, 3, 5 and 9, and swaggering through the turn at 31. When he three-putted 14 from 15 feet for a bogey, however, he bent to the hole with some difficulty, limped away slightly, wiping sweat from his brow, and went on to play the last five holes in four over. Suddenly he looked...well, just like any other senior. "The bad news is I'm playing horribly," he said after his 71. "The good news is that I still have a chance to win." On Saturday he shot a 75, and on Sunday he finished horribly again, bogeying 14 and 15 and double-bogeying 16.
For the last round, the clouds finally moved in to cool things off and keep the greens reasonably soft, and Barber won the tournament on the back nine, the way everyone hoped it would be won. He was paired with Palmer, which, he said, made him think the night before about all the times through the years he and Arnie had played together. "I believe," said Mr. X, "that every time I've played with Arnold, we both always shot in the 60s." So Barber kept his driver in his bag most of the afternoon and concentrated on keeping his ball in the fairway with his three-wood. He birdied 2, 5 and 7, and, going into the dreaded back nine, held a one-stroke lead over Littler and Sikes. He birdied 10 and 13 to reach even-par overall and get two strokes up on Littler. On the long par-4 15th, he hung a 25-foot birdie putt on the lip of the cup, and on 16 he hit an eight-iron two feet from the pin and made birdie. "Like I said," said Barber, "having Arnie with me just gave me the confidence."
In the end, the Senior Open turned out to be a beautiful event. Even as the regular Open has its Larry Rinkers and its Jim Kings among the leaders in the early rounds, the Senior Open has its Art Silvestrones and Freddie Haases. Haas, a strapping 6'1½," 66-year-old former touring pro from Metairie, La., whose last regular tour victory was the 1954 Thunderbird Invitational at Palm Springs, Calif., ran an eagle-birdie-birdie-birdie string and shot a 72 in the opening round and said, "I was thinking, 'Gee, my mother would just love this.' She just passed away. The one thing she always loved was to read my name in the papers."
Silvestrone, a 50-year-old teaching pro from Winter Park, Fla., visited the press tent after his opening-round 72 and said, "This is my first time doing this. I just hope I'm up here drinking Coke the next couple of days. But if I'm up here again the fourth day it'll be a jug of red." The oldest player in the Portland field, Paul (Little Poison) Runyan, who won 15 tour events from 1931 to 1941, shot his age on Friday, three days before celebrating his 74th birthday. "I guess I've done it a couple of hundred times," he said. And Mike Souchak, 55 years old now, shot an 84 on Friday and said, "Hey, it's just a game. If you have your health, you have it all."
For the remainder of this season, Barber will be playing both Senior and regular tour events. He has already won $43,548 on the senior circuit and nearly $30,000 more on the main PGA Tour; last year he earned $97,386 and $49,325 from them, respectively. Next year, when the Senior Tour swells to around 20 events, he has decided that he will weight his schedule more heavily in that direction. "You take 20 senior events and 15 regular tour events," he says, "and what you've got is a divorce."
Meanwhile, the seniors will continue to watch out for Palmer, who went flying off to this week's British Open at Troon, where he won in 1961 and '62. Arnie only has until 1990 to tear up the Senior Tour. That's the year a kid named Nicklaus becomes eligible.