As a rule, members of the Senior PGA Tour don’t often complain. They are too busy enjoying this bonanza that has made them rich and given them something to do in their autumn years.
But they have complained loud and long about the courses used for Southern California tournaments since the tour started holding an event here a few years ago.
Neither MountainGate Country Club, where the tournament was staged in 1985 and 1986, nor Wood Ranch in Simi Valley, site of the next two, met with approval from the 50-and-older set.
Now that the GTE West has moved to the Ojai Valley Inn & Country Club, there are not likely to be many complaints about the $350,000 tournament, which begins with a pro-am Nov. 28.
The 6,252-yard layout in the hills above Ventura is the perfect setting for a senior tournament. It is a fair test and not too long.
Although such seniors as Arnold Palmer, Jim Dent and Chi Chi Rodriguez can hit the ball within range of players on the regular tour, some of the older seniors can’t. Because a large number of pros over 60 compete, the seniors look for a tight course rather than one that favors long hitters. Ojai is a par 70, and there are some tough par fours. But for the most part, even the older golfers will be able to reach the greens in regulation.
The characteristics that caused complaints about MountainGate and Wood Ranch are not apparent on this course.
MountainGate, a hilly course built on landfill, had greens slick as glass. One year when the pros were complaining about the difficulty of putting at Augusta National during the Masters, Billy Casper, who had just played in the senior tournament at MountainGate, was asked about the greens.
“Compared to MountainGate, these are easy,” Casper said. “It is impossible to putt on those greens.”
The problem at Wood Ranch was the wind. On what passed for a mild day, the wind often blew 15 to 20 m.p.h. On some occasions, there were gusts of 40. The wind dried out the greens and made them extremely hard and fast. It often was cold, too.
Neither MountainGate nor Wood Ranch was good for spectators, either. The terrain made walking difficult, and there was little room around the 18th holes. Those problems don’t exist at Ojai.
Harold Henning won the last senior event in the area, at Wood Ranch in March 1988. The South African, who was one of the first players to use a long-handled putter, hasn’t won a tournament since, although he’s among the money leaders this year with more than $400,000.
Henning says he likes the Ojai course, which is located 73 miles northwest of Los Angeles.
“Although I won at Wood Ranch, I didn’t enjoy playing there that much,” he said. “It’s tough to play in wind, and when it’s blowing as hard as it did there, it is really difficult to play well.
“I like what I’ve seen of this course, and I know most of the seniors are anxious to play here. I haven’t been playing well lately, but despite not winning, I’ve taken a lot of ammunition home.
“A few years ago we played this tour just for laughs. It was a social occasion where you renewed old friendships. There are so many tournaments and there is so much money, the seniors are getting serious again.
“We keep adding a good player every week or so. Recently Larry Ziegler and George Archer joined and immediately became threats to win. Lee Trevino can hardly wait. He’ll play the week after Ojai.
“Next year Jack Nicklaus will join us for some tournaments. Trevino and Nicklaus may be in for a surprise. As good as they are, they won’t dominate every week. There are too many good players out here now.”
The Ojai Valley Inn & Country Club, which stages an invitational tennis tournament each spring, was built in 1923. The course was designed by Billy Bell and George C. Thomas Jr., the latter also the course architect of Riviera, Los Angeles and Bel-Air country clubs.
In June 1988, under the direction of Jay Morrish, the course underwent a $3 million resurfacing, part of an overall $35 million restoration and expansion project.
When Ojai learned that the PGA was looking for a site to stage a senior tournament, it made a pitch and was successful.
Except for Gary Player, who has returned home to South Africa, all the top seniors will be there for the 54-hole tournament, which ends on Saturday, Dec. 2.