Seniors are thankful for a 2nd chance

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CHICAGO -- On the occasion of the July 19-21 Ameritech Senior Open at Stonebridge Country Club in Aurora, Orville and Bruce and George and Billy and Charles and Lee and Miller and Chi Chi would like to take this opportunity to say thanks.

Thanks ever so much to everyone who has made their second time around in life so sweet.

Thanks to all of you who have made it possible for oldsters named Moody and Crampton and Archer and Casper and Coody and Trevino and Barber and Rodriguez to keep playing golf long after they'd hit the downslope of that proverbial hill and to the fates that transpired to help them become rich, rich, rich.

Yes, folks, these Senior Tour guys couldn't be more giddy.

Conceived in Augusta, born at Onion Creek, baptized by Lee Trevino and anointed by lords Arnie and Jack, geezer fever continues apace.

So let the thank-you notes go out.

To golf legend Gene Sarazen and TV producer Fred Raphael (the old "Shell's Wonderful World of Golf"), who hatched the idea of a televised golf tournament for seniors over dinner in April 1973 at Augusta National Golf Club.

That meeting led to another meeting with Don Ohlmeyer, the then new head of NBC sports programming. And that meeting led to the first televised Legends of Golf at Onion Creek Country Club in Austin, Texas.

And Legends of Golf I led to Legends of Golf II in 1979 at Onion Creek and that led to ...

The drama of Robert De Vincenzo and Julius Boros beating Tommy Bolt and Art Wall after six holes of sudden death that year proved that age has nothing to do with beautiful or thrilling golf.

So thanks again to those guys, Chi Chi would say. And to PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman and the members of that first Senior Advisory Council Sam Snead, Boros, Gardner Dickinson, etc. for recognizing that, by George (Archer), they had something here and maybe there was room for more. More tournaments. More TV. More money. More fun.

And yes, Orville would like to lead a round of applause for Senior PGA Tour tournament director Brian Henning, who beat the bushes in those early days looking for sponsors, looking for tournament sites, begging for acceptance. And he gives thanks, too, that Henning wouldn't let things rest even as the tour blossomed from two events worth $250,000 that first year (1980) to five events in 1981 with $750,000 in official prize money to 42 events this year worth $24 million.

"My job in the early days," says Henning, "was to go out and find five, six tournament sites just to get these guys out of the house. Nobody had any idea how it would take off. Now I'm on the road all the time running tournaments which I enjoy a lot more.

"When we got up to about 15 tournaments, though, there were some players who started saying, 'That's enough.' But I didn't agree with that. The more I could get the better in my opinion. I felt the interest was there. Plus, I could look ahead and see we had a new breed coming."

That new breed included a fellow named Lee Trevino, who turned 50 last year.

All the Merry Mex did in his rookie year on the Senior Tour was win seven tournaments and take second in eight others. His presence, along with occasional appearances by Jack Nicklaus, led to estimated increases of 33 percent for attendance and 35 percent in TV ratings for the seniors. So muchas gracias, Lee.

And Charles Coody would add an appreciative nod to television, which pleased by the demographics of golf fans and even more pleased by the interest shown in golf by corporate sponsors, has treated senior golf almost on a par with the junior circuit.

Team Tennis, the Senior Professional Baseball League and Arena Football should have been so lucky.

"We're bullish on the Senior Tour," says golf publicist Dave Nagle of ESPN, which will televise almost twice as many senior events this year as ABC (six), NBC (two) and CBS (one, the Ameritech) combined. Our golf schedule has grown in large part because of the seniors. Of 48 golf events that will be carried on ESPN this season, 17 will be seniors."

"There's no question TV has been a wonderful platform," says CBS golf producer Frank Chirkinian. "I have to believe that people my age (Chirkinian turned 65 on June 10) feel very close to the men on the Senior Tour. I've been doing golf telecasts since 1958 and I know a lot more of the seniors than I do the regular tour players. So even though from a producing standpoint I'd rather do regular tour events that have international stars in them, even though my heart is there, my soul is with the seniors."

Still, you can bet without corporate interest there wouldn't be as much TV interest. So thanks, too, Don January might add, to Ameritech and Bell Atlantic and MONY and PaineWebber and all the corporate types who like to play golf and rub shoulders with a Chi Chi or a Miller Barber in one of the Senior Tour's weekly pro-ams.

And thanks, as well, to whoever realized how important those getting-to-know-you golf outings would be to the Senior Tour's bottom line. In that sense, says Henning, golf may be unique.

"Name me another sport where amateurs can mingle with professionals, play a sport with them and get to know them," says Henning. "People are putting up $1,000 for the chance to play with our players, so we want to treat them right."

And thanks to you baby-boomers and parents of baby-boomers for your memories. And to the wave of nostalgia that was sweeping the country when the Senior Tour was still young. And thank goodness a lot of the seniors still had the personalities and the golf games to carry the act off.

"The intriguing thing about golf is that it's ageless," Chirkinian says.

"The junior tour doesn't need anything," says Rodriguez. "Those young people make everybody proud to be a golf pro. We don't think they smile enough, but it also doesn't lack for personalities. Fuzzy Zoeller, Ben Crenshaw, Peter Jacobsen are very colorful people. What hurts the regular tour is it doesn't have a Jack Nicklaus. It needs somebody to dominate, somebody to identify with."

What the Senior Tour has is players golf fans used to identify with and still do.

The unspoken guess, of course, is that someday the Senior Tour will peak. Now that Arnold Palmer is playing and Trevino and Gary Player and sometimes Nicklaus, how can it possibly keep growing?

"I think it will," says Henning. "There are a lot of guys still out there who can't wait to turn 50. Raymond Floyd, Tom Weiskopf. And then more people a few years down the line. Fuzzy. Watson. We know who they are, the public knows who they are and the corporate sponsors know who they are."

Bruce Crampton, age 56 and winner of $2,405,211 in his six years on the Senior Tour, only hopes Henning is right.

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