People laughed when Gary Player predicted a few years ago that the PGA Seniors Tour would eventually become the biggest draw of the three professional golf groups.
At the time, Player had just become eligible for the 50-and-over tour, and it was a distant third to the regular PGA Tour and the Ladies Professional Golf Assn. tour.
Nobody’s laughing now. Although it isn’t likely to replace the regular tour as No. 1, the senior tour has moved ahead of the women into second place, and there is no end in sight to sports’ newest bonanza.
The Senior PGA, already with a corner on the big names, keeps adding an attractive old face every couple of months and the best is yet to come.
The seniors have Arnold Palmer, the man who started the pro golf boom, Player, Chi Chi Rodriguez, Billy Casper, Al Geiberger and many others.
In a year, Lee Trevino will eagerly join them. Vin Scully, his partner on NBC golf telecasts, said he has never known anyone so eager to reach 50. “He just can’t wait,” Scully said. “He sees all that money out there and knows he can get a big slice of it.”
A few months later, Jan. 21, 1990, to be precise, Jack Nicklaus will be eligible.
And the fantastic growth of the senior tour has changed Nicklaus’ opinion. A few years ago, Nicklaus said he did not expect to play at all on the veterans’ tour. The surprising success has brought about a change in attitude.
“I’ll play some on the senior tour, but I don’t have any specific goals,” Nicklaus told Golf magazine. “The senior tour is a good concept, but frankly I’m astounded at its continued success. I’ll be a ceremonial golfer, much as I am today. I have no goals, as Trevino does, to break a bunch of records.”
Until Fred Raphael, who produced “The Wonderful World of Golf” television series, came up with the idea of “The Legends of Golf,” when a professional became too old for the regular tour, his choices were few. He could retire gracefully and play golf for fun. Or, he could become a teaching pro. Or, if he had a big name, become head pro at a major country club.
Raphael put together 2-man teams of famous old-timers and called it “The Legends of Golf.” In 1978, Sam Snead and Gardner Dickinson won it. Snead, then 66, birdied the last three holes to win it. The next year Roberto de Vicenzo and Julius Boros won on the sixth hole of sudden death. The senior golf boom had started with a TV show.
In 1980, there were two events worth $250,000. By 1983, there were 18 and the total purse was $3.3 million. Next year there will be 43 events and the gray golfers will play for purses of $16 million.
What started out as a relaxed way to earn a little money and have some fun has now become big business. Almost every year, players such as Rodriguez, Casper and Player win more money than they ever did on the regular tour.
Corporate America is pouring money into the senior tour at the expense of the LPGA. The women have lost MasterCard and the major sponsorship of Mazda, but the senior tour is turning sponsors away. Attendance has mushroomed and figures to keep growing.
“The success of the senior tour is amazing,” said Don January, who along with Peter Thomson of Australia, dominated the early years. “The original idea was to have a couple of tournaments each year to bring together old guys no longer able to compete on the tour.
“It was not supposed to be a moneymaker, merely a time for fun and relaxation. While the other two tours had television revenue to look forward to, all we had at first were amateurs who wanted to play with fellows they could relate to.
“It succeeded beyond the wildest dreams. There was a waiting list for amateurs, we proved we could still play golf and just about every tournament was a success. Amazing.”
The tour didn’t need another boost, but it got one. Palmer, who had not won for 3 years and was talking about retiring, won a tournament, then finished third in the next one. Arnie’s Army, always the biggest gallery at any tournament, picked up hundreds of recruits.
The peak of this season, the $1-million Vantage championship tournament, will be held at Tanglewood Park in Clemmons, N.C., this week, starting Wednesday. The winner will earn $135,000, more than any of the participants, including Palmer, ever won in a single tournament.
It was held for the first time last year, with Geiberger winning it. It was his first victory since he had won the Colonial National Invitation on the regular tour in 1979.
In the early years of the new golf circuit, it became apparent that the best years for a senior were 50-55. After 55, it became difficult for them to compete.
The birth of a super-senior segment was the result. It began in 1987 with Vantage putting up a $30,000 purse at 18 senior tour events. Only those 60 or over were eligible. If the regular tournament is 54 holes, the eligible 11 super seniors play a 36-hole event, with the winner picking up a check for $7,000.
Eligibility, besides age, is determined by how many tournaments a golfer has won on the regular and senior tours.
“I would have to stay home in Argentina if there were no super-seniors,” De Vicenzo, 65, said. “I just can’t compete with the young fellows. And I really enjoy coming to the States and playing with my old friends.”
Although the big purses are beginning to make the players more serious, they still seem to have more fun than those on the regular tour.
“Nobody believed me when I said this would be the big one,” Player said. “But it’s getting there. We have a lot more fun than those guys on the regular tour do. And the fans know it. They relate with us older golfers, and they enjoy seeing us enjoying ourselves.”
Both Player and Palmer laugh when Nicklaus talks of not playing much on the senior tour.
“When I was getting close to 50 I was saying the same things Jack is saying,” Palmer said. “I know Jack. He enjoys competing. He likes golf too much. He’ll be out here. Probably not full time, but he will play a lot.”