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Thoughts at the Start of a New Year

By John M. Ross,
Fuzzy Zoeller
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Newcomer Fuzzy Zoeller will get the senior circuit's fan-friendly atmosphere off to a joyous start. (Courtesy of fuz.com)

Commissioner Tim Finchem and his associates seem to have come up with the right formula for nurturing the PGA Senior Tour back to good health. Creating a new fan-friendly atmosphere and returning the tour events to "live" television, rather than the much-criticized tape-delayed format, deal directly with two of the factors that have been cutting heavily into the popularity ratings of the over-50 circuit.

But getting these mostly hard-bitten veterans of the grind to start cozying up to the fans might not be so easily accomplished. Most of them have been out there on the trail for 25-30 years or more, and by now some of them don't even know the gallery exists.

In the early years of the senior circuit they not only had the huge advantage of Palmer, Nicklaus and Player in the lineup every week, but they had an all-out effort by everyone else to help this unique golf attraction get running in high gear. To most of the old-timers it was like the chance of a second career, rather than being relegated to stacking shoe boxes in a pro shop somewhere.

Finchem gets a huge break for his new plan with the arrival of Frank Urban Zoeller at the golden age. Fuzzy, with his endless one-liners, is a gallery favorite and a cinch to get the fan-friendly atmosphere off to a joyous start. A non-stop chatterbox and extrovert, he is likely to lure some of his partners into this lighter mood.

With Ben Crenshaw turning 50 on January 11, Finchem could have another plus for his enterprise. Gentle Ben has been one of the game's most beloved heroes for the past three decades. And he has earned that not so much by his play, but by serving as a guardian angel of sorts for the game. Throughout his career he has been devoted to the protection of the integrity and spirit of golf, and he has been its most tireless advocate.

Ben triggers many fond memories for me, including the day I signed him to his first professional contract as a member of the playing staff at Golf Magazine, shortly after he turned pro in 1973. He won his first PGA Tour event that very first year, but the victory I remember best is the one at Augusta, when he won the 1945 Masters. He had to reach back for a little extra that week because his mentor and dearest friend, Harvey Penick" (The Little Red Book") had just died. When he fired that winning putt, he removed his cap and stood there momentarily while he quietly dedicated the dramatic win to his old friend. The tears rolling down his cheeks underscored the heart-tugging sincerity of the moment.

It was a scene golfers talked about for many days afterward.

Incidentally, another Texas golfer, Don Cherry, also was born on January 11, but he was in his prime before Crenshaw was born. He played on the U. S. Walker Cup and Americas Cup teams in the Fifties and Sixties, and had some good finishes in the U. S. Amateur. He was a fine golfer, but he was best known as a pop singer. And he was a pal of Jimmy Demaret.

Demaret was a golf headliner, just a little earlier, playing on Ryder Cup teams and winning the Masters three times. He was a singer, too, and he probably would have preferred to have a song on the charts rather than his lofty ranking in golf. As an offshoot of their mutual frustration, they teased and needled each other, and some of their pranks and practical jokes are well known in golf lore.

Here's one of my favorites:

Cherry had gone off to play in a tour event in Michigan, and he was at the very top of his game in the opening round. He fired a 66 to take the lead, and he made the papers everywhere - including Texas - the next morning.

When Demaret saw the story about Cherry in his paper, he let out a whoop, followed by the light bulb flashing in his head. Without wasting a minute, he headed to the telegraph office, chuckling all the way. He dispatched a wire to Cherry at the tournament site that read: "An imposter is using your name at the tournament. Suggest you check it out. Best, Jim."

In the second round, Cherry's score soared to 77, and now it was Don's turn to send a telegram to Jim. His wire read: "Caught the culprit."

The impact the Big Three of the LPGA on the sports scene can be detected in the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year poll. Three golfers placed in the top ten, the first time the lady golfers have held that many upper rungs of the ladder. Annika Sorenstam was in third place, Se Ri Pak was eighth, and Karrie Webb was tied for No. 10.

In the voting for the AP's Male Athlete, Tiger Woods, who won only five times this year, saw his poll-winning string snapped at two. But he still holds one of the most remarkable records turned in by a golfer in the 70 years of the prestigious poll. Starting in 1997, he won the honor three times, missing out only in 1998.

Since the poll was launched in 1932, only four other golfers have taken the prize - Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan and Lee Trevino. Nelson was named twice. Incredibly, neither Arnold Palmer nor Jack Nicklaus ever was named.

Incidentally, Barry Bonds led the male athletes thanks to his new record of 73 home runs. Among the ladies, Tennis's Jennifer Capriati topped off her gutsy comeback from drugs and other problems with the well-deserved honor.

Putting the new calendar in place on the desk presents a temptation to speculate on what will be written on those pages in the days ahead. In short, forecasts are in order, and here's what I look for in 2002:

Continued upward movement for both Retief Goosen and David Toms, who crashed through for their first majors this year.

On the other hand, I don't think David Duval's impressive showing in breaking the ice at the British Open will have any carryover effect. It didn't seem to help him in his lackluster showing in the latter half of 2001.

But it does seem time for Phil Mickelson to shed the money that's been on his back for so long. He's one of the best shot-makers on the Tour. It simply has to happen, and it could come in the Masters.

Also on the happy side, I see final accord between the USGA and the Royal & Ancient on the matter of the thin-faced driver. The Brits will bow to the validity of the Yankee testing, which has banned the club.

And the fellow we'll be toasting the most - young Sergio Garcia. He seems to have settled down and is ready to do it all.

By the way, who pushed me out on this limb?

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

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