News & Opinion

Senior PGA, like entrants, stands up to time

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. – Late Sunday afternoon after the conclusion of the KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship, someone will experience one of the best workouts in the game when he is handed the trophy. Alfred S. Bourne bought the eponymous prize from Tiffany & Co. for the inaugural tournament in 1937, and he didn’t mess around. The cup is 42 inches tall, 18 inches wide and weighs 36 pounds.

The hardware is a big prize for one of the big deals in senior golf. The Senior PGA is the oldest event – by far – on the Champions Tour schedule, predating the formation of a tour for 50-and-older golfers by more than 40 years. The first two editions were played at Augusta National Golf Club, where Bourne was a founding member who helped get the club off the ground with key financial support in its early days.

While there have been some surprise champions through the years – Tom Wargo in 1993 and Kohki Idoki in 2013 come to mind – many legendary players have won the Senior PGA. Sam Snead, Hale Irwin, Gary Player, Julius Boros, Gene Sarazen, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson own multiple titles. Peter Thomson, Jack Nicklaus and Raymond Floyd won it, and last year, so did Bernhard Langer.

Langer isn’t defending his title this week at Harbor Shores (tee times). It is an understandable but unfortunate absence.

Jason Langer, the youngest of Bernhard and Vikki Langer’s four children, is graduating from high school this weekend. “Family comes first in my life,” Langer told reporters last month at media day, “so I’ve got to be there to support him, to celebrate him moving on to college.”

You would expect nothing different from Langer, a man as decent as he is talented and whose priorities are in the right place. The only downside is that Langer’s presence would have added heft to the championship with a hefty trophy.

As men’s and women’s professional golf has skewed younger over the past decade with players such as Jordan Spieth and Lydia Ko lighting it up, Langer has been an underappreciated standard bearer for excellence in later life.

Irwin’s record of 45 Champions Tour career victories used to seem as untouchable as Byron Nelson’s 11 straight triumphs in 1945. Although the clock is against him, the 60-year-old Langer earned his 37th title earlier this month at the Insperity Invitational by rallying from a three-stroke deficit with 10 holes to play. It gave Langer a victory in 12 straight seasons and was his fourth since turning 60, allowing him to surpass Irwin in both categories.  

Langer already has won the most senior majors, 10, two more than Nicklaus in the official count and one greater than Player if you add the three Senior British Opens that the South African won before the event was designated a major by the Champions Tour in 2003.

Because there wasn’t a senior circuit until almost two decades after Snead’s 50th birthday, the man with the most PGA Tour victories didn’t have the benefit of beating up regularly on his peers, which he surely would have done despite his well-documented putting woes. Watson certainly has done a good imitation of the man whom he used to love watch hit balls, winning the Senior PGA in 2011 at age 61, the oldest since Jock Hutchison’s win at 62 in 1947. Anyone who appreciates widening the competitive window got a kick out of what Irwin did during the Senior PGA’s first visit to Harbor Shores in 2012, shooting his age (66) in the second round and finishing third while bidding for his eighth senior major.

As a dogged, gritty competitor who doesn’t tire of winning, Langer has a lot in common with Irwin. In operating under the radar of many casual sports fans despite a phenomenal chapter of achievement as a senior golfer, Langer shares that too. Is it the highest level of golf? Of course not, but as that amazing duo and lots of others have shown, it is a high level that deserves more respect than it sometimes receives.

Langer isn’t at Harbor Shores this week, but someone will play fine golf and receive a large, hard-earned trophy that, like the competitors vying for it, has been around for a long time. There is beauty in that, because “far and sure” doesn’t have to mean just how well you play but how long you play well.

Bill Fields has covered golf since the mid-1980s, with much of his career spent at Golf World magazine as a writer and editor. A native North Carolinian, he lives in Fairfield, Conn. Email: williamhfields@gmail.com; Twitter: @BillFields1