The Tradition, the Senior PGA Tour’s version of the Masters, opens today at Desert Mountain Country Club with legends such as Jack Nicklaus; and some of the past greats of golf, such as 1936 U.S. Open champion Sam Parks, 84-year-old Paul Runyan and Tommy Bolt; and even a mayor.
Called “His Honor” in the Texas town of Toco, Rocky Thompson, who recently set a senior record by shooting a final round of 10-under-par 61 to win the tournament at Tampa, Fla., is in the field for the 72-hole event.
Lee Trevino, player of the year Dave Stockton and Raymond Floyd also will be among those facing defending champion Tom Shaw in the $850,000 tournament, considered a major event for the 50-and-older set.
The only big names bypassing the event are Arnold Palmer and Al Geiberger. Palmer has another commitment, and Geiberger underwent rotator cuff surgery and will be out for six weeks.
For a while, Thompson, 54, wondered what he was doing playing alongside all the big names. Not anymore.
Known as “King Rabbit” because he participated in more Monday qualifying tournaments for the regular PGA Tour than any other golfer, Thompson has won more than $2 million as a senior.
One of the most colorful players on any tour, he played in PGA events for 27 years. By his count, he had been in 611 without a victory until he finally broke through at Syracuse in 1991, his third year on the senior tour. He now has three victories and more money than he ever thought he would earn.
“I was only a marginal player on the tour, but partly because I was out there to have a good time,” Thompson said. “I didn’t worry too much about whether I qualified or not. I had at least one girlfriend in every town. It was a great life for a bachelor.”
Altogether, he earned $141,000, most of it before the PGA came up with its qualifying school and virtually ended Monday qualifying.
In addition to his colorful garb, Thompson is probably best known for the length of his clubs.
The shaft on his driver is 52 inches long, and he has been using a long-handled putter since before he led the senior qualifying school by 10 shots in 1989.
“I doubt if anyone will ever have a longer driver,” Thompson said, “mainly because nobody else would be that stupid.
“Since 1991, I’ve gone from 48 inches to 52, but the toughest change of all was the first one--from 43 1/2 inches to 44 1/2. That one was a huge change. For a long time, I hit everything right. I had to make a major adjustment in my swing. Since then, I’ve been comfortable swinging a longer club practically from the start. It has enabled me become one of the long hitters.”
Thompson, who is 5 feet 11, 172 pounds, was No. 6 in driving distance last year, averaging 268.9 yards.
Thompson broke the senior record for 18 holes with his 61 by putting well. In wiping out Mike Hill’s lead, he sank birdie putts of 22, 18, 12 and 10 feet.
“There are times,” he said, “when I feel like every putt will drop. That’s the way it was that day.
“I keep watching Arnie with his putting problems and just wish he would go to the long-handled style. He’s fooled around with it, but he’s never given it a real try.”
Toco, Tex., has a population of 164. The name is an abbreviation of Thompson Oil Co., which is owned by Rocky’s father. “I get elected (mayor) every time,” Thompson said, “because nobody else wants to run.”
Thompson, who was 14th on the money list with $571,844 earnings in 1993, believes the senior tour is about where the regular tour was in the mid-'60s.
“The tour was like a big fraternity then,” he said. “We knew everyone, and it’s the same on the senior tour.”