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Irish Times

Making The Most Of Senior Moments


July 3, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Irish Times. All rights reserved. 

Two summers ago Juan Antonio (Chi-Chi) Rodriguez went 78-74 and out to miss the cut in the Senior US Open at Salem Country Club in Massachusetts, and vowed he'd never play another senior major again.

"I want to play golf and have fun," Chi Chi explained to us from Puerto Rico, where he is living in semi-retirement, a couple of days ago. "I don't want to be embarrassed. This tour was supposed to be about nostalgia. People want to come out and see us play and have a good time, but when you're making double bogeys, I don't care how old you are, you're not having fun." And some of the old-timers would be happy to settle for double bogeys. When he came to the final green at Inverness last Friday, in the second round of the Senior US Open there, Arnold Palmer had no chance of making the cut anyway, but his gut-wrenching experience in full few of several thousand spectators ringing the green is instructive.

Palmer's approach shot fell short of the green, landing in a cavernous bunker. He blasted out, but his ball flew the green and came to rest in ankle-deep rough. His next shot was one all too familiar to the weekend duffer: he chunked the ball. It travelled no more than three feet, still in heavy grass, but at least this time he could see it. From there Arnie chipped on, but his ball went sliding down and off the slick green, travelling nearly back into the bunker from whence he had started his greenside play.

"STOP!!!" Palmer shouted at his ball, and, when it did, spectators who had been writhing in their seats at the sight of this public flogging chuckled nervously. This time Palmer took his putter from the fringe and got the ball to within six feet. When he sank that - and at 73, Arnie doesn't make a lot of six-footers - for a 7, the crowd politely applauded. He smiled, none too convincingly, waved and was back in Pennsylvania by nightfall.

"That's a tough golf course anyway," said Chi Chi Rodriguez, who watched last weekend's action on television. "But besides the length of the course and the rough, those greens were the fastest of any USGA event in history. What's the point of doing that for seniors? We're not supposed to be out there grinding; we're supposed to smell the flowers." The PGA Senior Tour, now rechristened the Champions Tour, does indeed find itself in an identity crisis. In some respects it is a victim of its early success: its immediate popularity when it was conceived two decades ago sparked a massive growth in purses that annually brought the newly-turned 50s flocking from every caddyshack in every corner of the globe.

By the time the Senior Tour was five years old, for instance, Palmer was no longer competitive. The powers-that-be attempted to remedy this by incorporating a "grand champions" tournament-within-a-tournament for players aged 60 and above, but players Palmer's age are out of their league even there by now. The television folk, and, one suspects, the USGA, would much preferred to have seen Tom Watson win last week's US Senior, but the living legend fell short of overtaking Bruce Lietzke. Now, Lietzke isn't exactly anonymous - he won 13 tournaments and over $6 million on the PGA Tour - but neither is he the sort of marquee player who is going to carry the standard of the Champions Tour into America's living-rooms.

This is in part a situation of Lietzke's own creation. Twenty years ago, when his children came along, he made a conscious decision to be a stay-at-home father and part-time touring pro. He built his PGA schedule around his family commitments. He coached his son's Little League baseball team, for instance, which meant no summer golf. Lietzke stopped playing the US and British Opens, and as a consequence never earned enough points to qualify for the Ryder Cup, which he last played in 1981. "Bruce has his priorities the way he wants his priorities," said fellow Kansas Citian Watson. "You can't argue with a man's priorities. Not being able to spend the time we'd like to with our families is a choice most of us out here must make. He chose not to make it." Watson remains a force on the Champions Tour, but Jack Nicklaus is, at 63, barely more competitive than Palmer. Lee Trevino has followed Rodriguez' lead, and refuses to participate in Senior Majors and, basically, any other event in which he can't use a cart.

At the same time, there are millions to be made. Christy O'Connor Jnr, for instance, took the Senior Tour by storm when he turned 50, and might still be raking in the money but for his unfortunate experience with a Harley-Davidson. Des Smyth finished as medallist in last winter's Champions Tour Q-School, and halfway through the year has already earned over half-a-million dollars. The lure of the big money has also brought an influx of previously unsuspected talent. Perhaps most remarkable has been Allen Doyle, a career-long amateur who turned professional at 48 in the hope of earning enough money to pay his daughter's college tuition. He made $250,000 in the two years before he turned 50, and has earned over $8 million since.

Doyle said he wouldn't have turned pro at all had the USGA responded positively to his request to play one more Walker Cup, this time as player-captain. When the blue-jackets said no, he turned pro, but not in his wildest dreams could he have imagined what the next half-dozen years would hold. "I'm not a dreamer," Doyle explained last week. "I don't look beyond tomorrow and the next day. The only thing I wanted was, first, to get a chance to get out there and play, and I felt that if I got that I could compete. Remember, in my amateur career I'd played against Tiger Woods and David Duval and Phil Mickelson and Justin Leonard before anybody on the regular tour ever heard of them, and when I was 47 and 48 I was on the tour and played against the guys my age, like Hubert Green and Ben Crenshaw, who were about to turn 50.

"I also had Jay Sigel, who preceded me. Jay probably wouldn't agree, but I kind of felt I was a better player in my 40s than he was, and when he came out he was fourth on the moneylist," pointed out Doyle. "I'd seen guys out there who'd come onto the Seniors Tour and done okay, so I had some barometer to judge by. What I tried to key into was just not worrying about all the bullshit, just worry about playing and shooting a score, and at the end of the week if my score totalled up lower than most guys, then I'd done better than most guys," he said with a chuckle. "That's all I tried to do. I didn't imagine I was going to win the money title." Doyle was a relatively anonymous, 48-year-old PGA Tour rookie when he arrived at the 1996 Greater Milwaukee Open and found a note in his locker asking if he could come by the media room. Though puzzled ("What the hell did they want me in the media room for?"), Doyle dutifully reported to the press tent, where he identified himself.

Next thing he heard was a voice announcing over the loudspeaker "Allen Doyle is now available in the interview room." "Must have been 50 or 60 guys get up and run in there," recalled Doyle. "I'm wondering 'What did I do? Did I do something wrong?' " The reason for the unexpected attention became quickly apparent. A 20-year-old Tiger Woods was making his professional debut in the Milwaukee event that week.

"The first guy to ask a question explained it," said Doyle. "He reminded me 'You're the only one in the field who's ever played with the kid'."

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