It officially opened for business in 1980, but in terms of public appeal, the Senior PGA Tour always will be golf’s gift to the ’90s. In a period of pronounced prosperity, the idea that a bunch of rich old guys could keep playing for even more money suddenly made a ton of sense. Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino had just turned 50. Arnold Palmer and Gary Player still had plenty of gas in the tank, and so Geritol Ball grew from some cozy little circuit into this big, fat enterprise with a nod to the past and its eye on the modern masses.
Right place, right time. The addition of Nicklaus obviously gave the product some clout, and by the time he won his sixth old-man major, at the 1993 U.S. Senior Open, the granddaddies were rivaling the flatbellies in pursuit of mainstream popularity. A television deal with ESPN helped the Senior Tour immeasurably; the sports network itself was an aspiring empire, with growing access to every Joe Sixpack in America.
Nearly three decades later, things are quite different. The over-50 league has changed its name twice, a sign of a hyperactive marketing department and a struggle for recognition. Now known as PGA Tour Champions, the seniors always will have a TV partnership with Golf Channel, but purse sizes have remained flat for 20 years, and several of the game’s biggest stars essentially have passed on the opportunity to continue competing.
Optimism barks. Reality bites. “We’re a nice little option for corporations when it comes to entertaining clients,” said Tom Pernice, who won his sixth senior event (with Scott Hoch) at the Legends of Golf in April. “We’re in the smaller markets, and in a place like Des Moines, it’s a big deal in the community. We do a great job with the sponsors and amateurs. You get 45 or 50 players showing up at the pro-am parties…. That’s a major reason we can stay out here and do what we do.”
For all the tour pros who don’t give a hoot about administrative policy or the value of public interaction, Pernice is a guy you’ll take on your team every day of the week. He won just twice in 21 seasons on the PGA Tour and never finished better than T-13 at a major, so he doesn’t sell tickets or help move the needle. Not overtly, anyway.
Another thing that Pernice doesn’t do is offer a slice of sugar-coated shinola. He’s a straight-up guy with strong, intelligent opinions, a rare player in that he’s well versed on the issues but is eminently capable of conscientious objection. Pernice knows all about his company’s problems. Nick Faldo never was interested. Paul Azinger wanted to ride his motorcycle and go fishing. And Greg Norman, for all of his marquee qualities, wasn’t about to help Camp Ponte Vedra carry anything after it stole his world-tour concept.
In a sense, rank-and-file types such as Pernice have become the definitive senior-tour soldiers. There are three pro-ams at almost every event: a smallish deal on Monday and a pair of full-blown versions on Wednesday and Thursday. “That’s a lot of folks,” Pernice said. “We do some great entertainment and have a lot of impact with those kinds of numbers.”
There’s a striking irony to it all. Players who made a very good living but never a fortune on the PGA Tour now have to work harder to earn perhaps half of their previous income. People dismiss the modern Champions because it has been overrun by once-borderline tour pros who didn’t win much when they were younger, guys who lived off the fat of the land after Tiger Woods kicked prize money deep into the stratosphere, but that’s what senior golf is now.
A 401(k) for journeymen. Or as Pernice put it, “a great life, a great opportunity.” You can’t begrudge a man such as Kevin Sutherland, who won once in 447 PGA Tour starts but already has two Champions victories this year, for staying in shape, refining his game and landing feet-first in a nice pot of gold.
It will be interesting to see what today’s superstars do tomorrow. You’d need a vivid imagination to foresee Woods or Phil Mickelson playing in 20 Champions tournaments, or even a handful, for that matter. There are dozens of other players who will venture north of $25 million in career earnings, some of whom will find little reason to wander around the country and play as many rounds with the 19-handicaps as they do in actual competition.
By making its modern-day membership so wealthy, the neckties in north Florida have all but strangled any chance for Geritol Ball to reclaim its former level of significance. Those days are gone, but the soldiers march on.
John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: firstname.lastname@example.org