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Golf's sensational seniors.

Lee Trevino was restless. It was a beautiful day at The Vintage Club near Palm Springs, California, but the former PGA and U.S. Open champion wasn't out on the golf course. Instead he was nursing a pulled muscle under his right shoulder blade, "chomping at the bit," and literally aching to begin his second season as a major player in perhaps the most successful professional sports venture of the last decade.

"This is the happiest I've ever been," said Trevino as he explained how his career became rejuvenated last year when he reached his 50th birthday. That made him eligible to join legendary names like Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Gene Littler, and Billy Casper on the Senior Professional Golfers Association Tour, a series of events that, at the rate it's going, could someday eclipse the regular PGA Tour in popularity.

The impact of the Senior Tour has been astounding not only in this country but also in Japan, Great Britain, and South Africa. It began 12 years ago with two tournaments and $250,000 in prize money. By 1984, when 24 tournaments generated more than $5 million in purses, veteran Don January, who was among the organizers of the first Senior Tour, exclaimed, "If you had told me back in 1980 that we'd have this many events and be playing for this much money, I'd have said you were crazy."

This year, playing for the most part in cities where the regular PGA Tour doesn't stop, the seniors are shooting for $24 million in 42 events, 24 of which are slated for national television. Although the regular PGA Tour traditionally has done better in the TV ratings, the Senior Tour is closing the gap. Sunday (final round) ratings in 1990 jumped 35 percent over the previous year. And for the first time in anyone's memory, a Senior event clobbered a regular tour event in head-to-head competition. That happened on the final day of the USGA Senior Open, featuring Jack Nicklaus and Trevino, which had a 5.2 rating compared to a 2.1 rating for a PGA event in Hartford, Connecticut.

"Right now Senior golf is enjoying tremendous popularity because of the nature of the players you see week in and week out," says David Downs, the vice president of programming for ABC, which is televising six events this year. "A large portion of the golf audience still reveres players like Nicklaus, Trevino, Gary Player, Chi Chi Rodriguez, and Arnold Palmer. And in many instances, fans are more familiar with them than they are with their less famous counterparts on the regular tour."

Trevino proved to be a big spark for the Senior Tour's ratings. The Hall of Famer had a spectacular "rookie" season in 1990, winning seven events and finishing second in eight others. Trevino, with some assistance from Nicklaus, helped trigger record-breaking increases estimated at 33 percent for attendance and as high as 35 percent for TV ratings. He earned $1,190,518 for the year, making him the first Senior player to exceed the money winning total of the leader of the more lucrative PGA Tour (Greg Norman won $1,165,477 out of $46 million in purses).

"The names have a lot to do with it," Trevino says. "But I think what's happened in the last couple years is that people needed a measuring stick--like a dipstick for your oil--and they were saying, 'Wait 'til Nicklaus and Trevino get out here. We'll see how good these other guys are.'

"And when I came out and only won seven of 28 tournaments, people now had something to measure those other guys by. They looked at that dipstick and said, 'Hey, wait a minute. We've got some quality players out here still.' And that's one reason that the galleries are out there. . . . The public now has realized that by shortening the golf course by 500 yards, that son-of-a-gun can still play as well as he did 25 years ago."

PGA unknowns like Mike Hill and others who had passed their PGA prime, like Bob Charles and Bruce Crampton, also found new life on the Senior Tour, which features shorter tees and shorter tournaments, usually three 18-hole rounds over three days, one fewer than the regular tour.

Charles, the Senior Player of the Year in 1988 and 1989, anticipated being retired by 50. "But here I am playing more golf than I'd ever played in a single year," says Charles, the 1963 British Open champion who is considered by many the best lefthander ever to play golf.

"It looks like it's going to be that way for another five or ten years. It's given me an opportunity to extend my career, to generate a good income, and to enjoy success which I really didn't have on the regular tour," Charles says.

Hill, the runner-up on last year's money list with $895,678, eptomizes the dozens of unknowns who have found success on the Senior Tour. When Hill quit the regular tour in 1980--after playing most of his career in the shadow of his older brother, Dave--he had three wins to show for 12 years of competition. He thought he was through with the game when he went home to Michigan to operate a farm and a nine-hole golf course.

"I really didn't practice, and I probably played only about ten times a year," Hill says. "But when Davey came out to the Senior Tour (in 1987) and was successful, I decided to join him. I felt like I could make at least $100,000 a year, and I certainly wasn't doing that at home." Hill won five events in 1990 and had what Trevino called an "unbelievable" year, and the "biggest turnaround of any player I'd seen."

"There are a lot of great players out there," says Trevino, who once attempted to start an "over-40" tour himself. "I'm really surprised how good they are. But if I had to pinpoint one thing about those guys, they've taken care of their bodies a little bit better as they've gotten older. They spend more time on the driving range and on the putting green."

The impetus for the Senior Tour came in 1979, when January and Bob Goalby were among six veteran PGA players who attended the tour's first organizational meeting. The spectacular finish of the second annual Legends of Golf Tournament that year, when Julius Boros and Roberto De Vicenzo birdied six straight playoff holes to edge Tommy Bolt and Art Wall by one stroke, fueled interest in a Senior Tour.

"We were hoping to play about 10-12 times a year for maybe $100,000 a week," says January. "That would just have been wonderful. As it turned out, the tour became a phenomenon."

In 1980, January won the first official Senior Tour event, held in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and he ended the two-tournament series as the leading money winner with $44,100. But there were plenty of problems at the beginning. Some of the old-timers, for example, would come out and shoot in the '90s.

"Guys who were paying $1,500 to take part in a pro-am didn't want to play with people like that," recalls Goalby. "At the time we started, we didn't have too many good players. We didn't get much publicity because nobody accepted us."

Sometimes they didn't get paid. "We played in a little pro-am one day in St. Paul and they didn't come up with the money for the tournament," January recalls. Slowly, however, the Senior Tour expanded to 5 events in 1981 and 11 the following year.

January says the players did "a lot of glad-handling" in the tour's early days. Players were pushed to attend parties for tour club members and sponsors to attract attention. Each tournament would hold a pro-am "draw" party Tuesday followed by nightly parties for club members and sponsors Thursday through Saturday. "The members and pro-am players loved the participation because the regular tour players didn't do that," Goalby says. "But in order to make the Senior Tour survive, we knew that it had to be done. If somebody didn't show up, we pushed the guy to make him come."

The presence of players like Boros and Sam Snead and the addition of Arnold Palmer helped to push the growth of the Senior Tour along.

January's tour-leading winnings increased to $237,571 in 1983 and $328,597 in 1984. "The whole country in the '80s was in a mood of nostalgia," January says. "Many young golfers had read about Snead and Boros and Palmer in their golf manuals but had never seen them swing in person. And when our galleries got good, I was surprised that it wasn't all old people. A good number of them--probably half of them--are much younger."

The presence of Palmer, who January says "continues to attract some of the largest, most enthusiastic galleries in golf," helped attract corporate sponsors, which have been essential to the Senior Tour's growth and success. For example, the year before Bell Atlantic took over as its title sponsor, the Philadelphia Senior Tour event made $75,000. The total jumped to $300,000 the following year.

Tournaments this year have names like Royal Caribbean, MONY, Chrysler, Fuji, Liberty Mutual, Mazda, and New York Life attached to them. The Cadillac Motor Car Division is now in its second year of a three-year umbrella sponsorship of the Senior Tour.

"I think it's an absolute natural for corporate sponsors," says Trevino. "If you're going to entertain your guests or customers, how do you do it? You don't bring hockey players in and have a hockey game. They don't play touch football. What do baseball, football, basketball, and hockey players do when they quit playing their sport? They play golf!"

Ironically, a lack of sponsor interest was given as the reason an "over-40" tour Trevino tried to set up in 1982 never got off the ground. "We actually searched for a corporate sponsor for an over-40 tour, but we were unsuccessful," PGA commissioner Deane Beman says. "There really were not enough players to make it go. Many (over 40) players were still competitive on the regular tour." Trevino was one of them, winning his second PGA Championship two years later at the age of 44.

Like the early days, the over-50 players of the Senior Tour still warm up the tournament sponsors and corporate community with a pro-am tournament, usually on Thursday, the day before the first round. Each four-some consists of a professional and three local amateurs who usually have paid handsomely to rub elbows with a "name" player and help sponsor the event for the benefit of a local charity. The atmosphere is strictly low-key, and it is not uncommon for players after they have completed their rounds of golf to linger at the hospitality tent, socialize with sponsors, and shake hands with fans.

"In my experience with the Senior Tour I've seen a certain camaraderie that you don't see all the time in sports," says Mary Ann Saleski, who runs the Bell Atlantic Classic in Philadelphia. "The Senior Tour pros are generally more receptive to everything. This is like a second life for them. Sure, they're competitive, but yet they've already proven themselves somewhat. They understand the importance of sponsor relationships and they work hard at it."

With all of the glittering marquee names of the '60s and '70s now playing the Senior Tour, some observers see the possibility of it becoming more popular than the regular PGA tour--especially if Nicklaus decides to increase the handful of appearances he has made with the over-50 set since becoming eligible in 1990. The Golden Bear just may do that after picking up $279,000--the biggest paycheck of his legendary career--by sinking a 40-foot putt to beat Gary Player at the Senior Skins game in Hawaii.

"There's a lot of talk that this tour could grow more rapidly and could be as big as the other tour," Crampton says. "Realistically, though, I think the progress has got to slow down a little bit. I don't think it can expand in the next nine years to the degree it has expanded since 1980. I don't think that it will ever replace the regular tour. I think that the Senior Tour has found its little niche in the golfing scene here in the United States and, for that matter, worldwide."

Dave Stockton and Jim Colbert with be eligible this year to play the Senior Tour, while Raymond Floyd, Tom Weiskopf, and Isao Aoki can join in 1992. "They will be tough to beat," Trevino says. "Floyd will make a big impact. He will be a very mean machine."

Downs of ABC doubts, however, that any player soon to enter the Senior Tour will have much of an impact. "The big players on the Senior Tour don't play as often, the events are not as prestigious, and there's a real healthy respect for the regular tour," Downs says. "And you know, there aren't too many people out there who would propose that Arnold Palmer is better than Curtis Strange.
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Title Annotation:Senior Professional Golfers Association Tour
Author:Lyons, Robert S., Jr.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:May 1, 1991
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