News & Opinion

Legends of Golf fails to live up to its name

The Legends of Golf has become one of golf's great misnomers.

The last time that both members of the winning team were major champions? You have to go back to 2010, when Mark O'Meara and Nick Price won the title. The very next year is when things really got goofy as Mark McNulty and David Eger claimed the trophy. For starters, what were those guys even doing in the field? The same could be said for defending champions Kirk Triplett and Paul Broadhurst. Good people, fine golfers, but “legends,” they are not.

My point is the two-man team, better-ball format tournament that spawned the Champions Tour is no longer special. It's basically the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, with Tom Watson and Hale Irwin filling out the field. Shame on the PGA Tour for not delivering a product commensurate with the name on the billboard.

The Legends used to be different. It was a convocation of the heroes of yesteryear. It was one of the few places where you still could take in the famous golfers of earlier eras whom you had never seen enough of: men such as Billy Casper, Gene Littler and the irrepressible Bob Toski, who called it his major and said "it keeps guys like me going."

This tournament isn't a major championship, but it should be held sacred; it needs to live up to its name and its legacy. This is not the week for Dudley Hart, Bob Gilder, Wayne Levi, Tom Jenkins, Wes Short Jr. and Ken Tanigawa, all of whom are in the field at the so-called Legends of Golf, which begins today at the Top of the Rock and Ozark National courses in Ridgedale, Mo. (tee times). There are 26 other weeks for them to ply their trade. Make no mistake: These pros all know they don't belong. But as one of the non-legends said recently, “I'm just going to ride the system.”

The system has been broken for too long. I chalk this up to a case of the tour being a members association and trying to cater to one and all. Miller Brady, the seniors’ first-year commissioner, knows this all too well from his previous role as the deputy commish and needs to take a stance and limit the field. Otherwise, fans will continue to be served a diluted brand by which the tournament name doesn't measure up to the product inside the ropes.

From 2002 to ’07, the Legends actually became an individual event to attract the stars of the day – namely, Hale Irwin – who were skipping it because it counted as "unofficial money." That was peak "inmates-running-the-asylum." When the tournament wisely reverted to its successful formula, the field swelled to as many as 100. Let's be honest: There aren't 100 living male legends in golf.

This year will be the 42nd edition of the event, originally known as the Liberty Mutual Insurance Legends of Golf, and the sixth year contested in Missouri under the Bass Pro Shops banner. From what I've been told, Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris was promised that the field would be reduced when he signed on, but all he's done is eliminate the 70-and-older category in the tourney's first year and axed the 65-plus division last year. So, you're down to a handful of old-timers at what began as golf's old-timers day. At least Morris is smart enough to keep around the true legends of the game: Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Lee Trevino. There's also Ben Crenshaw and David Graham, as well as a few other prominent major winners.

Morris deserves credit for throwing one helluva party, or "hooptee," as he likes to say in his down-home way. Every year, he's got something new up his sleeve. Given the nature of his product, he has brought in Bill Dance and Roland Martin, legends of fishing, and other outdoor activities to entertain clients. Two years ago, Morris added a celebrity skins shootout, pairing Nicklaus with musician Kid Rock to make up a legendary odd couple. It speaks volumes for interest in the tournament in its current format that Mark Wahlberg and Larry the Cable Guy joined the hit-’n’-giggle exhibition last year as headliners. Has the shelf life of the Legends expired?

Morris is a modern-day P.T. Barnum, and eyeballs trump nostalgia. This year, he's doubling down with the likes of Justin Timberlake, social-media star/golfer Paige Spiranac and trick-shot artist Tyler Toney of YouTube sensation Dude Perfect. You can't blame Morris for attempting to attract a wider audience, and it's bound to blow up on social media. Last I checked, the celebs' social-media following is a little better than those of Tommy Aaron, Charles Coody and Tony Jacklin.

But Morris wouldn't be forced to resort to the celebrity angle if the field at the Legends included a few more actual legends and a lot fewer players who are anything but. Former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman had a saying: It's never too late to do the right thing.

Let's make the Legends of Golf legendary again before it’s too late.

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf.com and The New York Times. He is the winner of the National Sports Media Association's "Golf Article of 2017," and the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak