2005: Champions Tour at 25: Bonds, competitive fire rejuvenate over-50 set

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Kahuku, Hawaii

It’s not as if a sports fan today can buy a ticket to watch 56-year-old Terry Bradshaw toss passes to 52-year-old Lynn Swann in Pittsburgh, or can saddle up in some ballpark in the Big Apple this spring to find the 1969 Amazin’ Mets playing pepper on a freshly mown infield.

But as the Champions Tour begins another season, the here-and-now dovetails quite nicely with the warm nostalgia of days long gone.

On one end of the range on this particular Hawaiian morning, Isao Aoki, just a few months removed from his induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame, diligently works on his game. At the other end, a timeless Arnold Palmer, now 75, rewraps the leather grip to a new driver. About 50 yards away, in the short-game area at Turtle Bay Resort’s Palmer Course, Gary Player, still fit as a fiddle at 69, splashes bunker shots from the sand, betting his caddie half the looper’s weekly fee that he’ll soon hole one.

There’s a work element to what is going on here, but for all three, this clearly is a labor of love. In what other game can athletes still hold tour cards long after they’ve received their AARP cards? It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who once wrote there are no second acts in American lives. But that’s only because he didn’t stick around long enough to watch the launch of the Champions Tour, the world’s – all together now – “greatest mulligan.”

And so golf’s Hall of Fame on wheels rolls on, and soon will set up shop in a city near you. This year marks the start of a 26th season for the Champions Tour (the artist formerly known as the Senior PGA Tour), and the circuit plans to use the yearlong campaign as a celebration of its silver anniversary.

Curtis Strange joined the party last week in Naples, Fla., and Greg Norman turned 50 Feb. 10. The Shark says he’ll test the Champions Tour later this summer, when the majors start arriving. There is skepticism whether today’s PGA Tour stars – many of whom are making millions in earnings each year and building retirement plans that will reach tens of millions – will even have a need to play the Champions Tour.

“Greg Norman is the beginning of the generation that doesn’t need the money,” said Paul Azinger, who will be eligible for the Champions Tour in five years. “It’ll be interesting to see how many in this generation will play it.”

“Knowing me,” said Jerry Kelly, 38, “that lure of competition will make it awfully hard to pass up.”

He’s right, and those who play the Champions Tour believe it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Sponsors are pleased and plentiful, the schedule has been pared to 28-30 quality events, and players down the road will find the need to scratch their inevitable itch to compete.

“They’ll retire rich men (players on the PGA Tour today), but those guys won’t be driven by money,” said Hale Irwin, who has won 41 events and made nearly $21 million since turning 50. “Arnold Palmer doesn’t need the money. Jack Nicklaus doesn’t need it. Why do they play? They love what it brings out in them, and they love what it offers. So I think most of those guys will be out here.”

Adds Larry Nelson, “I never thought I’d be playing past 40. But guys want to be the best, and when you turn 50, you want to be the best guy over 50 years old.”

The Champions Tour, just like any 25-year-old, has encountered and endured its share of growing pains. There was the sharp dip in interest a few years back coinciding with the rise of Tiger Woods on the “younger” tour, as well as an ill-advised gamble that moved senior telecasts off ESPN and over to CNBC, a financial news network that showed tournaments tape-delayed at dinner time. The Tour even briefly looked into lowering its minimum age to 45.

These days, the hottest Champions issue is the use of golf carts. Tour officials say the decision to prohibit carts during competition was made to improve the image of the Champions Tour.

Not to belittle the matter, but compared to steroids in baseball, an NHL lockout and players fighting fans at NBA games, it would seem a rather minor squabble.

The Champions Tour, which took that name in late 2002, continues to travel a road toward defining its ultimate identity. Is it exhibition golf, as it was described in 2001 during hearings in Casey Martin’s lawsuit against the PGA Tour? You may look at septuagenarians such as Palmer and think that it is. Or is the Champions Tour purely a competitive animal these days, a Darwinian survival test of the fittest, with brakes put on the carts and fields as deep as ever needing to shoot low, low scores to win?

Which is it? The former or latter?

“We’re both,” said Rick George, in his third season as Champions Tour president. “We have to be entertaining, but at the same time, we have to be competitive. I think we are. It’s a fine line, it really is. But there’s no argument between being entertainment or competition – because we’re both.

“And that’s what we hang our hat on.”

Most players applaud the direction the Champions Tour has taken to shed the perception of being a weekly wedge and putting contest, by tucking flagsticks and shifting tournaments to longer, tougher golf courses that average more than 6,900 yards. The balance between nostalgia and competitiveness clearly has tilted toward the latter, and to a man, most players say the caliber of golf being played by Champions Tour players these days is better than most people realize. (“The standard of play, every week, just shocks me,” said Player.) The competition to keep a card is much fiercer than on the PGA Tour, too. Unless a player has status on the career money list, the only way to maintain playing privileges is by finishing in the top 30 each year. At Q-School in November, only seven full exemptions were awarded.

“You have to play well and you have to play aggressively all the time, and you can’t have too many poor weeks and expect to finish in the top 30 out here,” said David Eger, who has finished 23rd and 25th, respectively, the past two seasons. “Every year there are more good players who turn 50, and it’s going to continue that way.”

For a quarter century, the Champions Tour has represented many things for many people. For the Palmers and Nicklauses of 444

the world, it has been an opportunity to take a well-deserved victory lap. For the Irwins and Lee Trevinos, playing past 50 has presented the occasion to add glittering chapters to already decorated careers. For the Jim Colberts and Bruce Fleishers, the Champions Tour has meant an opportunity to shine brighter than they ever did on the regular tour.

For a handful of others, many from amateur or club pro backgrounds – the Jay Sigels, Allen Doyles and Dana Quigleys – the senior circuit has been a lotto ticket, opening the door to millions of dollars in riches and extravagant lifestyles they’d never imagined they’d see. Doyle, who played amateur golf into his late 40s, figures he made about $30,000 running his practice range in Georgia the year before he turned pro in 1994. On the Champions Tour, he has collected more than $10.2 million.

With apologies to Jerry Maguire, players say they don’t need to be shown the money. It’s nice, absolutely, but the Champions Tour is more about rekindling old friendships (and sometimes old rivalries) in a relaxed setting, traveling as empty nesters, playing no-cut, 54-hole events and contributing to a product that has become as fan-friendly as any sport around. On the Champions Tour, fans get to walk inside the ropes as honorary observers and get close to players at parties, clinics and pro-ams. On his way to trying to shoot 59 last year in Tampa, Fuzzy Zoeller was interviewed live on the 18th hole by The Golf Channel.

“Our tour is different, no question,” said Player, who has been playing pro golf for 52 years. “Hey, we were voted in (Sports Business Journal’s 2003 “League Report Card”) as the No. 1 sporting event in the country. That’s because we’re different. We play two pro-ams, sometimes three. We go to some of the dinners. We write letters to our amateurs. It’s a ‘PR’ tour. It’s an experience for these people who come out to watch, something they enjoy and won’t forget.”

Of course, nobody has meant more to the tour’s success than Sam Snead, who lent his support early, and Palmer, who never met a hat or a program he wouldn’t sign and just happened to turn 50 in 1979, a few months before the Senior Tour got up and running. There were only seven events in 1981, but then-director of tournament administration Brian “Bruno” Henning kept finding willing markets in smaller cities, and by 1982, “everything went crazy.” By 1985, the seniors had 24 events.

When Palmer thinks about what’s now on the table – a tour that began with two events and a $250,000 purse in 1980 will feature 28 official events and a total purse of nearly $53 million this year – he shakes his head in disbelief.

“I always thought it would be good,” Palmer said. “I suppose it has exceeded some of my thoughts, but I was never in doubt that it would work pretty well.”

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