Holding a Champions tour event in a city famous for its
cemeteries is a nice touch. I flew into Savannah on April 22 to
write a story on the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf, and like
most visitors, I oohed and aahed over the sepulchral plantings
and the moss-covered statuary--until I realized that one
particularly lifelike monument wasn't a statue at all; it was
Don January lining up a putt. Well, you can understand my
confusion. Later a tournament volunteer proudly informed me
that the American Institute of Parapsychology has honored
Savannah as the Most Haunted City in America.
This is an article from the May 5, 2003 issue
Sorry. I came to praise the Champions tour, not to bury it. But
let's face it--most folks think of this circuit as the elephant's
graveyard of golf, a place where old pros go to make loud
trumpeting noises and bang tusks for the last time. Until last
fall it was called the Senior PGA Tour, but apparently the guys
in marketing didn't think much of a name that screamed, "They're
old!" The new name says, "They're great!"
Critics have seized on the name change as evidence--along with
tepid television ratings and the loss of some sponsors and
tournaments--that the Champions tour is in decline. My own view,
based on visits to three recent Champions tour events, is that
the tour is a success. Last Saturday at the Club at Savannah
Harbor, for example, I saw Arnold Palmer shoot his age (73). I
saw Larry Nelson drive his ball almost pin high on a 316-yard
hole. I saw Chi Chi Rodriguez do his sword dance and Lee Trevino
spin the club in his hands while watching a shot he liked. I
attended a clinic during which short-game coach Marc Albert
explained why I hit so many of my bunker shots into other
bunkers. I heard Fuzzy Zoeller go "Oooooh!" as he missed a
three-foot birdie putt, and I saw Raymond Floyd hit a drive into
perfect position on the 10th fairway. From the 1st tee. Hey,
folks, that's entertainment.
Still, I hear the complaints. They say the seniors whom the fans
want to see--Palmer, Player, Nicklaus, Trevino--have given way to
grim purse snatchers like Nelson and Hale Irwin. They say the
tour is diluted with former club pros like James Mason and career
amateurs turned bandits like Allen Doyle and Jay Sigel. They say
the senior players are grumpy, greedy, whiny and all the other
dwarves. They say the victors are ludicrously overpaid for what
is essentially exhibition golf. (Bruce Lietzke got $350,000 on
Sunday for his one-stroke victory at the Legends.)
I catch myself saying these things, and that's telling, because I
was one of those who, 10 years ago, thought the rapidly growing
Senior tour was in many ways better than the PGA Tour. Bigger
stars. Better personalities. More fun.
I don't have a Unified Grand Theory to explain how the seniors
slipped in my estimation, but I do have some scientific data from
Savannah. Imagining myself to be a human Geiger counter, I
followed various players for a hole or two. Gil Morgan, a 21-time
winner on the Champions tour, didn't register at all. Gary
McCord, in full mustache, produced a couple of clicks. On the
other hand former U.S. and British Open champ and Ryder Cup
captain Tony Jacklin produced a distinct crackle. Chi Chi
generated a storm of clicks, and when I looked up at a scoreboard
and saw the names tommy bolt and gene littler written in
traditional tour calligraphy, that, my friend, pinned the needle
in the red zone.
The reason I responded to those players the way I did is obvious.
I am a baby boomer. It was my generation, those born between 1945
and 1964, that fueled the explosive growth of the senior tour. We
bought into it because the old golfers were among the sports
icons of our teen years. Mickey Mantle, Johnny Unitas, Wilt
Chamberlain ... Sam Snead! We were the ones who went ape in 1978
when promoter Fred Raphael and Hall of Fame golfer Jimmy Demaret
staged the first Legends of Golf at Onion Creek Country Club,
just south of Austin.
Another factor that made the senior tour a success was the
relative lack of television exposure for golf and for sports in
general. We early boomers grew up during the Game of the Week
era, which literally meant--hold on to your chairs--one
black-and-white telecast of a given sport per week. Golf got even
less airtime, and most networks showed only the final four holes.
Consequently, the great players of the 1940s and '50s, as their
games declined in middle age, more or less vanished. When they
popped up again at the inaugural Legends, it was as if Michael
Crichton had written the script from his early notes for Jurassic
Park. Prehistoric golfers back on the loose.
Compare that with the current situation, which can only be
described as golf glut. There is a 24-hour golf channel. There
are weekday as well as weekend telecasts of most PGA Tour and
LPGA events, and real-time scoring on the Internet. There are
print media that cover golf as intensely as the White House press
corps covers affairs of state. All this exposure, bolstered by
corporate sponsorship of events, has sent tournament purses
soaring. That makes it worthwhile for older golfers to stay on
tour longer, and since the lucrative Champions tour now awaits
them at age 50, the forty-something stars keep playing the
regular Tour, if only to stay sharp. That explains why the senior
tour debuts of such great players as Ben Crenshaw, Tom Kite,
Lanny Wadkins and Tom Watson have created so little stir. We're
not nostalgic for them because they never went away.
Finally, there is the problem that has plagued the Champions tour
almost from the beginning: Some players are trying harder than
others. This is a problem only because the PGA Tour has never
decided what Old Guys' Golf is about. One faction thinks the
Champions tour should identify and reward the world's best
golfers over 50, even if their names happen to be Ted Goin and
Bruce Summerhays. Another faction sees the tour as a rolling Hall
of Fame, a fun-filled exhibition that gives fans a chance to walk
a course with the likes of Al Geiberger, Calvin Peete and
Palmer--none of whom cracked the top 100 on last year's money
To see which side is winning this debate, all you have to do is
sit in the grandstand at any Champions tour practice range. It's
not the Hall of Famers who are there beating balls at dusk. It's
Doyle, Stewart Ginn, Bobby Wadkins and the like, because they see
senior golf as a full-time job. Walter Hall, Mike McCullough and
Dana Quigley played in all 35 of last year's Champions tour
events. Ed Dougherty, Bob Gilder and Tom Jenkins played in 34.
Watson, on the other hand, played in only 14 events. Palmer
played eight times, Jack Nicklaus twice, Tom Weiskopf once.
Former U.S. and British Open champion Johnny Miller, who once
promised in a Callaway commercial that he would "kick butt" on
the senior tour, has played only twice in six years of
The trouble with this kind of analysis is that it excludes the
core experience of spectator golf, which is spectating. At this
year's SBC Classic in Valencia, Calif., I stood behind the tee on
the 16th hole, a 198-yard par-3 over water, and watched three
seniors attack a difficult back-right pin position. Goin and
Danny Edwards, looking as fit and trim as the day they got out of
college, hit beautiful high draws with long irons and found the
middle of the green. The shots were aesthetically pleasing,
rekindling the awe I felt as a youngster watching Dow Finsterwald
or Ben Hogan find a sweet spot no bigger than a matchbook. Then I
watched 62-year-old Jim Albus, the 1991 Senior Players champion,
go for the flag with a seven-wood, a game-improvement club that
no self-respecting touring pro would have touched a decade ago.
Albus swung like an old man, slapped his ball over the water and
stuck it six feet from the hole. Beautiful.
But you had to be there. At Valencia I stood five feet from
Morris Hatalsky, Joe Inman and Dick Mast as they waited, drivers
in hand, for a fairway to clear. They were talking baseball.
("Six-foot-six guy, hundred miles an hour, throwin' it at
me....") I saw McCord, who was trying to cut the corner on a
dogleg, hit a balloon-ball fade into the trees. Walking off the
tee, he took an angry swipe at the ground with his club, tearing
up a hunk of turf. I caught Chi Chi and Jim Dent at the 18th tee.
Rodriguez, in yellow slacks, blue shirt and white Panama hat,
addressed the ball with a driver that appeared to be eight feet
long. He hit an ugly rope hook, and the hundred spectators
following him applauded as if he had driven the green. Chi Chi
was 16 over for the tournament.
I followed the seniors down the coast to Newport Beach Country
Club, site of the Toshiba Senior Classic. Who won? Uh ... it'll
come to me. What sticks in my mind is how green the grass was,
how blue the sky. My favorite senior moment came in the first
round, when Player, short of the 18th green with his approach,
chipped well short of the hole and then missed his putt for par.
Fifteen minutes later, after turning in his scorecard and signing
autographs, he was still pantomiming his chipping stroke, still
looking for the answer. Player is 67 years old.
Granted, you have to be a certain age to appreciate these little
epiphanies. But not all the spectators at last week's Legends
fell into the Super Senior category of white-haired males with
copper bracelets and paid-off mortgages. There were lean youths,
blonde cuties and even a few children, who pointed first at the
giant container ships chugging up and down the Savannah River and
then at Palmer chugging up the fairway.
The age span of the competitors was almost as broad. There was a
36-hole, two-man better-ball tournament for players 70 and older,
won by Miller Barber (age 72) and Jim Ferree (71), who combined
to go 16 under. There was another 36-hole, two-man tournament for
players 50 to 69, won by Gary Koch (50) and Roger Maltbie (51) at
14 under. And there was the Legends Division, a 54-hole
stroke-play tournament for $2.25 million in official prize money,
won by Lietzke.
Frankly, I won't remember any of that a month from now. What I'll
remember is Ken Still on the 17th tee last Saturday, his
shirttail dangling from the back of his Argyle sweater as he
delivered a comic preamble about lofted fairway woods. Addressing
no one in particular, the three-time PGA Tour winner stood behind
his ball, looked at the flag and said, "Walter O'Malley, owner of
the Dodgers. The man made a hole in one with a 17-wood on the
15th hole at Los Angeles Country Club North. Swear to God!" Still
then stepped up and swatted a five-wood into the right greenside
bunker, 190 yards away. "That ball's in the trap?" he said,
looking to his caddie in disbelief. "Go away! That ball should be
10 feet right of the hole!"
I agreed with Still. It should've been.
John Garrity's Mats Only column appears frequently on
dwarves. They say the victors are ludicrously
as a youngster watching Dow Finsterwald or Ben Hogan.