For 50 and over, nice work if you can get it

THE BALTIMORE SUN

IT WAS A VALIANT effort traipsing across the putting green and driving range in our hot and heavy pursuit of "The Walrus."

Alas, Craig Stadler had vanished from view at Hayfields Country Club yesterday.

Where did he disappear to so fast? Why the rush? Didn't anyone tell "The Walrus" that at this Constellation Energy Classic stop on the Champions Tour, the tone and tenor is supposed to be different from the regular tour?

This is Hunt Valley, for goodness sakes, not Hootie's hallowed golfing grounds of Augusta National.

Who knows? Stadler just turned 50 on June 2. He's new to this Champions Tour gig. Maybe the 13-time PGA Tour victor is still operating in the highly competitive zone populated by the likes of top guns Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Mike Weir, et al., and not in the fan-friendly mode that Champions Tour officials promote.

Then again, there's a certain element of the cutthroat to these old guys, too.

"We play for a lot of money. There's a lot of anxiety, a lot of tension, and sometimes we're not as friendly as the tour would like us to be," Bruce Fleisher said. "It's a business. It's our livelihood, but maybe we should lighten up a little bit."

Tell that to "The Walrus," who won the Ford Senior Players Championship on July 13, four short weeks after joining the Champions Tour, pocketing the second-largest purse ($370,000) on the 32-stop tour.

One thing is apparent about this Champions Tour. It's not all about nostalgia. It's not Yogi Berra or Whitey Ford getting standing ovations at legends games at Yankee Stadium.

It's not John McEnroe riffing through a laugher against Bjorn Borg on the vaguely competitive senior tennis circuit, where the prospect of seeing Borg in those short shorts is a better bet than hourlong tiebreakers.

That's why it would be very wrong to reduce the Champions Tour to that "bunch of old guys playing golf." It's tempting, but wrong, especially when the guys who compete on this "senior tour" profess nothing but gratitude and glee about being the luckiest demographic in all of sports.

Who cares that one year it's Pebble Beach on the bluffs overlooking the foamy Pacific and the next year it's TwinEagles Golf Club in Naples, Fla.?

"You miss a lot of the courses you play over there, but we're playing the golf courses we should play. We've got guys out here who are 65 and 70 years old," said Tom Purtzer, 51.

Famed oldsters like Arnold Palmer and Chi Chi Rodriguez won't appear in the three-day Constellation Energy Classic, but the 50-somethings are champing at the bit to tee it up.

Why? Because they're gleeful that they don't have to retire! They don't have to go home and change diapers. This is of real concern if you're like Purtzer, who is in his second year on the Champions Tour. Purtzer has two sets of twins.

"My wife might like me to be home more, but then again, when I am home, she asks me, 'Don't you have a tournament to go play?' " said Purtzer, who has five PGA victories.

The golfers know they've got it better than NBA, NFL and baseball stars. After all, how many times have you heard Michael Jordan, John Elway or Tom Glavine talk longingly of extending their competitive careers?

"I think I'll join the tour," they've all pondered as they reach 37, 38, 39 and - for Jordan - 40 and their playing days are done.

For PGA golfers, there's a bona fide place to shake and stir their competitive juices, with enough money on the line to make it serious business.

"When it's all over for a Michael Jordan, what are you going to do?" Fleisher said.

"What am I going to do? Play basketball? What does Michael Jordan do? You get bored. You're used to all that adulation, all that competition, all that excitement. What are you going to do? Buy a [NBA] franchise?" Fleisher said.

Fleisher confesses to being a mediocre PGA pro. He won exactly one tournament (the 1991 New England Classic) in 408 PGA Tour events from 1969 through 1998.

Then he joined the Champions Tour - and lit it up. Fleisher went from an underachiever (he won $1.7 million in 28 years on the PGA Tour) to top gun on the Champions circuit, racking up $10.9 million in five years.

"It's been a great five years," he said.

"Different people use the Champions Tour as a different tool. Raymond Floyd, he had nothing to prove. He won the Masters, the PGA Championship, the U.S. Open. But someone like myself, who had a very mediocre [PGA] Tour, I never got that upper hand," Fleisher said.

The bottom line is that golfers can break their careers into two phases, where the competition, camaraderie and prize money are tough to turn down.

"Back in the '70s, before the Senior PGA Tour started, Tom Kite and I were in Austin at a Legends of Golf tournament," Ben Crenshaw said. "That's where the idea started. Then it just started growing."

He finds the tour is so competitive now that playing only 20 of the 32 events puts him at a disadvantage.

"If you miss tournaments, you're not tournament sharp," Crenshaw said.

Otherwise, the Champions Tour presents nothing but upside for the luckiest group of pros in sports - mostly because turning 50 isn't so bad anymore.

"We are so appreciative of having a place to play. I look at the list of guys whose birthdays are coming up, and it keeps getting better. Stadler's here. Jay Haas and Peter Jacobsen are coming. All my buddies," Purtzer said.

"If there's something else good about turning 50, I'm not sure I've found it."

Around sundown, "The Walrus" was finally spotted near the media tent. He said he has never considered retiring from golf. Now that the kids are out of the house, there's actually more time for him to master his trade.

"Playing three days over the weekend is better than twiddling my thumbs at home," said "The Walrus."

Like we said: luckiest men in the world.

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