A Timely 'Mulligan' for Charles

Bob Charles had it all figured out. He would play professional golf until age 50, then retire to a nice quiet life in his native New Zealand, raising sheep, deer and goats on a farm.

Charles, who will celebrate his 52nd birthday March 14, has his farm--575 acres of New Zealand real estate filled with livestock. But he won't be there to blow out the candles on his birthday cake. Instead, he'll be in Simi Valley, packing his bags after competing in the $316,000 GTE Seniors Classic, March 7-13, at the Wood Ranch Country Club.

So what happened to upset his plans for a leisurely life of peace and quiet away from the pressure of impossible lies and 30-foot putts?

"I'm still as enthusiastic about golf as I was when I was 22," Charles said this week after a practice round at Wood Ranch.

Maybe more so. After all, the most money Charles made in a single year on the PGA Tour was $72,468. That was good for 11th place on the money list in 1967. In nearly a quarter-century on the tour, he won a total of $539,118.

In two years on the PGA senior tour, he has won $650,597. That would do wonders for anybody's enthusiasm.

Baseball has its old-timers games. So does basketball. But each of those is your basic get-together-and-compare-old-stories-and-new-waistlines affair. Nobody is going to pay big bucks to watch a middle-aged Henry Aaron still try to reach the seats. Or a gray-haired Oscar Robertson run up and down the court for 48 minutes.

But golf is different. Arnold Palmer swinging a golf club is Arnold Palmer swinging a golf club, whether it's age 28 or 58. If you liked to watch it then, you'll like to watch it now. The differences between the old days are more subtle--a couple of yards off the drive, a little more squinting at the hole, a little less hair to brush away before swinging. Arnie's Army doesn't seem to mind.

Once sponsors realized that, the senior tour was born and Bob Charles had to find someone else to tend his flock.

The senior competition began in 1980 with two events and prize money totaling a quarter of a million dollars. This year, there will be 37 senior events with the prize money ballooning to $14.5 million.

"It's a mulligan for all us older pros," Charles said.

A mulligan, of course, is a tradition unique to golf. Weekend golf. Someone somewhere--we'll call him Fred Mulligan--decided that the weekend golfer should be compensated for his lack of practice time by getting a chance to erase a bad drive with a second attempt once every nine holes. Fred obviously had just deposited a ball in a nearby lake when he came up with this idea.

But don't let Bob Charles fool you with the analogy. Any resemblance between he or anyone else on the senior tour and the Fred Mulligans of the world is purely coincidental. Charles, the defending champion of the GTE Classic, played the challenging, 7,020-yard Wood Ranch course--complete with enough rough, water and sand to gobble up a bucket of balls--and emerged with a 68. This from a guy who has not bought new clubs in 20 years, or taken a golf lesson in 22 years.

Eat your heart out, Fred Mulligan.

"My drives are not that far off from what they were 20 years ago," Charles said. "The difference is that my short game is worse. It's nowhere near as good as it was. I don't know if it's because of the hot balls they are using these days, balls that just seem to explode off the club head, or because my eyesight has deteriorated, but I just don't have the confidence in my short game that I did before."

Charles actually has taken strokes off his game. He averaged about 72 each round when he was on the regular tour but has cut that to 70 in senior competition. Part of that improvement might be explained by the fact that the seniors play on a layout 200 to 300 yards shorter than those for regular PGA events.

Whatever the reality, Charles is under no delusions that he could suddenly go back to the regular tour and do as well.

"I know Arnold Palmer has tried to qualify for a regular tour event," Charles said. "Why do a stupid thing like that? What's he got to prove? Those days are over."

So what? For the seniors, these are the good old days.

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