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Discovery of New Youth on Senior Tour

By John M. Ross,
Larry Nelson
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Playing with the over-50s, Larry Nelson has been a terror. (PGA of America)

Those fellows in the white coats who spend so much time in the lab studying the aging process in man should get out to the golf courses occasionally if they'd like to expand the score of their work and focus on a few intriguing puzzles. The question of the putting "yipps," supposedly a sign of aging, has been pursued for years, and I've absorbed enough explanation and theorization to fill a volume or two, but I'm still not totally satisfied.

There are a few specimens in my neighborhood who would also make interesting studies. One, nearing 80, could be a good prospect for Ringling Brothers' "Flying Wallendas" as he soars into space to clean out the gutters on his roof every spring. On the flip side, there's Charlie, who has 10 years or more to go before he cashes his first Social Security check. He rakes leaves for about 20 minutes, then spends the rest of the day collapsed on the patio lounge.

My ongoing puzzle with aging golfers focuses, quite naturally I suppose, on the PGA Senior Tour. I've been fascinated by the fact that golfers who have played the PGA Tour for 20 or more of their "peak" years with only moderate success, can embark on the Senior Tour at age 50 and suddenly become runaway winners, record-breakers - and millionaires. On the other hand, many of the "name" players who sign on with the over-50 circuit, with the full expectation of extending their successful careers another span of years, often don't cause a ripple of excitement. It is confounding, but it does underscore golf's unique position in the field of competitive sport. No other sport, for all their varying degrees of excitement, can offer this type of expanded enjoyment for fans - not to mention extended careers for the players.

For the first decade of the Senior Tour, the lesser players dominated the money list. Indeed, Don January and Miller Barber - never marquee names of the PGA Tour - took turns in heading the earnings chart between 1980 and 1984, and it was another five years before one of the super stars butted in. Fellows like Peter Thomson, known mostly for winning the British Open, ChiChi Rodriguez, Bruce Crampton and Bob Charles topped the list in the interim. It wasn't until the Merry Mex, Lee Trevino, came along in 1990 that the Senior Tour had a headliner leading the parade. And typically Trevino, he not only topped the list, but he became the first to break the million-dollar mark as a senior.

Senior Tour officials counted heavily on Arnold Palmer and his great popularity to get the new circuit off to a roaring start in 1980, and they weren't disappointed. Arnie didn't dominate the winner's circle as they had expected, but he did pull in the customers.

Jack Nicklaus joined the old-timers in 1990, and, again, it was expected that he would take charge completely. But, faithful to the developing pattern, out of the blue comes another "nobody." Mike Hill, who had won only three times in more than two decades on the PGA Tour, came charging in to win five Senior events and more than $1 million to top the 1991 list - double what he earned in all those years on the regular tour.

This is not to imply that the game's super stars run out of gas at age 50 and are well past their prime when they check in with the senior troupe. Most of them remain highly competitive, if not dominant, well into their sixties. But, admittedly, some who were expected to boost the level of play and contribute to the overall nostalgia, did not. Names like Tom Weiskopf, Bob Goalby, Mike Souchak, Johnny Miller, Andy Bean, Doug Sanders and John Mahaffey, among others, have been less than prominent over the past ten years of play on the Senior Tour.

And this gets us back to the starting point - the study of aging. Apparently, not every body wears down at the same rate, and much of this depends on how it has been used - or misused. The same as an automobile, I suppose. Take good care of it, change the oil on schedule, do regular checkups, etc., and you might drive it in the "Parade of Antiques" one day. Neglect it, and it will be huffing and puffing, and dragging, long before the original paint begins to lose its luster.

The baffling aspect of all this concerns the golfers who suddenly explode as world-beaters when they turn 50. They've been turning up consistently for the past few years. Take Bruce Fleisher, for instance. When he won the NCAA, the Junior NCAA and the U.S. Amateur, he was trumpeted by many for stardom on the PGA Tour. It didn't happen. He was a good player, but he accomplished nothing special. Then he blows out those 50 candles on his cake and goes on to blow everything else out of his path on the Senior Tour. Nine wins over the last two years, worth upward of $5 million.

Then there's Larry Nelson. He won two PGA championships and a U.S. Open over a 20-year period on the big tour, but the rest of the time he was mostly in the pack. With the over-50s, he's a terror. He won six times last year, pocketed $2.7 million, and was the tour's Player of the Year. And, winning the very first event of 2001, Nelson shows no signs of slowing down. Well into April, he was still at the top of the money chart.

Slightly built, Nelson doesn't look like an athlete. Indeed, he credits an improved diet for some of his latter day success. A nutritionist suggested he eat every 2-1/2 hours to provide the energy he requires and improve his ability to concentrate. He started carrying a trail mix and a peanut butter sandwich in his bag, and presto! he's a big winner at 53.

Didn't some wise one say you had to be hungry to make it on the pro tour?

Doug Tewell, another late-bloomer, was told by his college coach that he wasn't good enough to play on the pro tour. Doug decided to try, nevertheless. He won four times over the 20-plus years, and when he reached age 50, he could hear his old coach's admonition again. But, undaunted, he decided to try the Senior Tour. Result: three tournament wins in his first year.

He has added an exclamation point in 2001 - a nine-stroke victory in the first Senior major of the year, The Countrywide Tradition. Needless to say, he's glad he didn't take the coach's warning to heart.

Perhaps the two best examples of the life-begins-at-50 attitude are the two players at the top of the Senior Tour's career money list, Hale Irwin and Gil Morgan. They weren't merely run-of-the-mill players on the PGA Tour, but one would never expect to see them sitting at the top of the chart that had the elite players of the game like Nicklaus, Trevino, Tom Watson, Ray Floyd and Gary Player, among others, trailing off behind them.

At the start of the year, Irwin had $17.7 million and Morgan had $13.1 million. And that's a ton of money for two fellows who never had their names in lights on the PGA Tour.

Of course, Irwin won the U.S. Open three times, an enormous achievement. Indeed, Sam Sneed couldn't do it even once, and he's won more golf tournaments than anyone in history. To be sure, Irwin has been one of the most consistent shot-makers to come down the trail. But based on his 24-year record on the PGA Tour, no one could anticipate his domination of the Senior Tour starting at age 50.

Some observers credit the remarkable advances in equipment and the players' closer attention to fitness and conditioning for the surprises on the Senior Tour. If one sits and listens in the locker room long enough, another three or four dozens reasons are sure to be proposed. While I was listening, I also heard this:

"Just think, in 25 years Tiger Woods will be ready to play the Senior Tour, and there's sure to be 'nobody' coming out of the pack to knock him off the throne."

Anyone ready to bet?

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

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