In 1979, the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf was in its second year as a made-for-TV event cooked up by television impresario Fred Raphael. It featured golf’s top stars who were too old to compete on the PGA Tour.
It was harmless-enough nostalgia. But the results of this better-ball partners tournament caught the viewing public unawares, and fans ended up delighted. Julius Boros and Roberto De Vicenzo beat Art Wall and Tommy Bolt on the sixth hole of a playoff, sparked by exchanges of birdies and chock-full of competitive, if good-natured, finger-pointing.
PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman was paying close attention. In 1980, the Senior PGA Tour was formed with a four-event schedule, including the Legends of Golf. In Beman’s mind, the Senior Tour was designed as a long trip down memory lane. He wanted to put yesterday’s stars on display and believed that the longer the tour lasted, as modern stars aged, they would drift over to the Senior Tour.
The early Senior Tour featured Boros, Bolt and, most importantly, Sam Snead and Arnold Palmer. Star power, if a little grayer, was the fuel that drove the grand experiment.
The Senior PGA Championship has been staged since 1937. The USGA created the second senior major, the U.S. Senior Open, in 1980. The minimum age was 55, the same as the age for the U.S. Senior Amateur. But in 1981, the Senior Open’s minimum age was lowered to 50. The reason? Arnold Palmer would have been 51 for the 1981 Senior Open and he said he would play. The USGA wanted Arnie on TV for the Senior Open.
Today, the senior tour has no such star power. Now, it’s known at the PGA Tour Champions because the PGA Tour wants to promote it as a tour full of champions, even without much star power. But a look at today’s senior tour finds an alarming lack of champions.
Bernhard Langer is the tour’s star. He has won the season-long Schwab Cup five times and, at age 61, has 38 senior victories. He’s a two-time Masters champion and a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. He has won 61 international events. However, Langer won only one other PGA Tour event in addition to his majors.
Second on the Schwab Cup list this year is Scott McCarron, who won three times on the PGA Tour. Placing third was Scott Parel who never has won on the PGA Tour. Hall of Famer Vijay Singh was fourth, and Miguel Angel Jimenez, who doesn’t have a PGA Tour victory, was fifth.
With all due respect to their careers, each of the top five – and most of the players on the tour – still can really play. But none of them draws many fans through the turnstiles or viewers on TV. The PGA Tour Champions has become the most irrelevant tour in golf.
Beman hoped that players such as Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Greg Norman would support the tour after they turned 50. Player was an enthusiastic senior, but Nicklaus played primarily only the senior majors. Watson played quite a bit early on but scaled back to the big events in later years. Norman competed in only a handful of events.
Nostalgia has been replaced on the PGA Tour Champions by finances. The tour is nothing more than an annuity for players past being able to compete on the big tour. Seventeen players in 2018 made more than $1 million on the PGA Tour Champions, led by Langer with $2.222 million. Langer has won more than $26.8 million on the PGA Tour Champions, and in 2019, he likely will overtake the legendary Hale Irwin, who won $27.1 million in his senior career.
It should be important to note that it is said in the circles of people who know that the PGA Tour Champions is in poor financial shape through a lack of major sponsors who are committed to the tour. So poor, in fact, that the PGA Tour has to subsidize a considerable amount of the Champions Tour.
It took $692,243 for Bart Bryant to be the all-important No. 30 on the money list, which gets him and everyone above him fully exempt for 2019. Exemptions on the PGA Tour Champions can be complicated, because there are only 78 players in the field for most of the 24 regular-season events. There is a combined all-time money list on the PGA Tour and PGA Tour Champions, and those players get the next spots. And the rest have to go back to Q-School every year.
You only have to look at the recently completed Champions Tour Q-School to see that the tour has been ill-named. Gibby Gilbert III, whose father was a multi-tournament winner on the PGA and Champions tours, was the Q-School medalist and never has played full-time on the PGA Tour. Only five cards were given at Q-School, and none of the five ever won on the PGA Tour.
Maybe it’s too much to ask that the PGA Tour Champions should ever again see such heavyweight fights among the likes of Boros, De Vicenzo, Bolt, Wall, Snead, Palmer or Player.
Those days are sadly gone, and there has been nothing worthwhile to replace them.
Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf