News & Opinion

Father-Son evolves for next generation

ORLANDO, Fla. – Jack Nicklaus requested 19 tickets to the PNC Father-Son Challenge this week at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club at Grande Lakes Resort – one for all of his runner-up finishes at major championships, perhaps?

"When do you think was the last time he asked for that many tickets?" said Alastair Johnston, the IMG executive who conceived the tournament that debuted in 1995. 

The Father-Son is a beloved event. This tournament isn’t really so much about a trophy – or in this case, a belt in homage to the original prize at the British Open – as it is about fathers being fathers, grandpas in the gallery, brothers on the bag, wives taking a bow for raising the offspring of the greats while their husbands were chasing glory, and a celebration of family. 

Defending champion David Duval, who won a British Open and Players Championship, called claiming the title with stepson Nick Karavites "as fulfilling as any."

It explains why the length of the waiting list to get into the 20-team, scramble-format field ranks alongside that of season tickets for the Green Bay Packers. Jason Langer, son of Bernhard, said that he and his brother and two sisters joked about having a sibling qualifier.

On Saturday, the bulk of the fans will traipse after Nicklaus and Lee Trevino, a revival of one of golf's great rivalries. They may be a little older, a little grayer, and the ball doesn’t go as far, but it’s still a treat to see these two great competitors together. It's also the only chance these days to see Greg Norman inside the ropes or critique the golf swing of six-time major winner turned TV analyst Nick Faldo and a field with a combined total of 57 majors and nearly 500 victories.

Johnston also breathed life into The Skins Game, which was a huge hit in the 1980s and '90s, but died a sad death after the 2008 event. Johnston is too cagey of a businessman not to worry that the Father-Son someday could suffer a similar fate. (It disappeared from the schedule in 2009-11 because of a lack of sponsorship.) It has withstood the loss of its top draw, the late Arnold Palmer, who called it quits in 2012 at age 83. 

This week, new life has been breathed into the Father-Son, with the potential to secure its future. For starters, Johnston persuaded PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan to sign off on a rule that allows players 70 and older to play from a forward tee (6,089 yards vs. 6,885 yards).

"I asked Jay," Johnston said. "I told him, ‘I need an executive decision. I don't want to go to committees.’ ”

This should extend for a few years that inevitable day when Trevino, who turned 78 on Dec. 1, and Nicklaus, who will celebrate the same birthday onJan. 21, no longer are able to compete. 

"It looks like the last time he [Nicklaus] plays here, it will be the last time he plays a PGA Tour event," Johnston said.

It already was getting to the point that if one of their sons belted a drive that was in play, the Golden Bear and Merry Mex would hop into their carts without teeing off because they couldn't do any better. It was a disservice to the fans who came to see these greats hit.

The second change is a work in progress. For the first time, a major champion will play with his father. Justin Leonard is set to tee it up with dad Larry, 76, who has been bragging to his friends about the chance to play inside the ropes.

"They are sick of hearing about it," Larry Leonard said. 

Johnston said Jim Furyk also had accepted an invite to play with his father, Mike, but the son remains sidelined with an injured left shoulder. 

Just think of the possibilities: Rory McIlroy and dad Gerry; Jordan Spieth and dad Shawn; Justin Thomas and dad Mike, a PGA pro. 

"I think that will happen," Justin Leonard said. "It will be a great thing to have Jordan and his dad on the range next to Jack and Lee. It will be special." 

Johnston called it a transition year, and he imagines four sons playing with fathers next year, with a maximum of eight in a separate division. It would be a tournament within a tournament, with the overall field limited to 20 teams because of the pro-am format on Thursday and Friday and restricted daylight this time of year. 

Johnston said he had high hopes for Ernie Els to play with father Neels, but an injury to the father prevented them from teaming. Johnston asked Phil Mickelson, who declined, saying his dad is too old. "He said, 'Where were you two years ago?' ” Johnston said. “Phil would've loved it.”

The changes add a compelling narrative to the one event that Johnston says nobody asks about the purse (for the record, it’s $1.085 million, with $200,000 to the winning team) and where his hardest task is breaking the news to eligible teams that the field is full.

Leonard is the trailblazer, but he senses his spot in the field might be short-lived. He said he expects Spieth and McIlroy and the younger breed to jump at the chance to play with their dads in the future, and he likely will be back in the NBC/Golf Channel broadcast booth next year.

"That is," he said, "unless we win our division."

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak