Keeping Score

Champions Tour offers more than legends

Phil Blackmar

Morning Read's John Hawkins recently questioned the value and place of the current-day PGA Tour Champions (“Concept of senior tour grows old,” June 4). He began the commentary with comparisons to the tour’s original lineup, which included greats Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Lee Trevino. If the only value this tour has to offer is a chance to see these iconic legends in person, maybe the headline on Hawkins’ commentary would be correct.

Don’t be fooled, however, into thinking this tour always has been dominated by golf’s legends. Nicklaus played only 84 events in 16 years and never finished in the top five on the money list due to his limited schedule. Palmer and Player finished three and four times, respectively, among the top five during the tour’s more limited formative years but never led in earnings. Trevino led the money list twice and was a regular among the top five in his early years on the tour.

Today, the PGA Tour Champions still boasts some of the game’s most prominent players. Last week’s tournament in Japan, for instance, included five World Golf Hall of Famers (Sandy Lyle, Colin Montgomerie, Larry Nelson, O’Meara and Tom Watson) and 13 major champions. Equal to the original four in recognition? Maybe not quite, but truly outstanding players nonetheless.

Hawkins concluded: “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.”

I have a couple points relating to the “soldiers.” How do you gauge a player’s career? Victories and major championships are the two most obvious and most often used, yet there is another way. How special is a player who stays exempt and healthy long enough to play 400 or more tournaments on the regular tour?

It takes an accomplished “soldier” merely to qualify for the PGA Tour, much less remain exempt for years. Some of those veterans – Jay Haas (1,098 starts combined on the PGA and Champions tours), Jeff Sluman (991), Billy Andrade (762) and Jeff Maggert (732), for example – have played for decades on both tours and are among the game’s elite players.

The beauty of the 50-and-older tour is that it is composed of more than the game’s hall-of-famers. Dana Quigley, Bruce Fleisher, Allen Doyle and, most recently, Ken Tanigawa, have won on the PGA Tour Champions after little or no success on the PGA Tour. They have authored extraordinary stories in their own right that also serve to keep the dreams alive of many other golfers approaching age 50.

With age comes experience, and on the PGA Tour Champions, this experience has the potential to help the average player. For instance, amateur players have no business imitating a PGA Tour player’s swing. Not only are they short of the necessary time, but they lack the physical requirements to swing like a young tour player.

Many Champions players must make adjustments in their swings because of the maladies of age. In this sense, they are much better models for the average player. The equipment manufacturers might even be missing something. With a graying U.S. golf population, who better to relate to this market than the PGA Tour Champions players?

The Champions experts also are artists in the scoring department. Though the PGA Tour’s style of play has shifted to a power game, to which the average player can’t relate, the opposite is true of Hawkins’ “Geritol” crowd. Learning how to develop scoring instincts from these players would benefit all golfers. The tour needs to capitalize on this great opportunity to reach out with programs and maybe a video library to share the pros’ unique set of tools.

A key component of the PGA Tour Champions is entertaining sponsors’ clients and others during the pro-ams and dinners, which most players take seriously. It’s common to have more than 40 of the 78 players at the pro-am dinner, and the players also do a nice job on the course during the pro-ams. You would be hard-pressed to find a better experience elsewhere.

Many fans associate the PGA Tour with charitable giving. The PGA Tour and its affiliated tours have raised nearly $3 billion for non-profits. The PGA Tour Champions, which often competes in smaller markets, also has made a substantial contribution to non-profits. Smaller metropolitan areas often have fewer resources available for charitable participation, which means the impact of these events on the local community can be even greater. Entertainment and charity are two areas which never grow tired.

Hawkins is right, however, in that the limited identity of the tour has run its course. This is a tour that has so much more to offer than just a chance to watch a few legends. With respect to a new identity, the time is right for this tour to get out of the box and look at new formats. The European Tour has had some success experimenting with several variations. Imagine a format similar to your member-guest at home, with a six-hole shootout at the end. Or similar to the match play at the NCAA Championships, which have proved to be so exciting to watch on Golf Channel. Let captains pick teams. Team up with other sports such as football or baseball. There are plenty of versions that the tour could try.

It would be a good idea to solicit the involvement of Hawkins and other media members by opening a few pro-am spots. This would give them the opportunity to see first-hand how this tour works, the opportunities it presents and maybe even contribute with some ideas of their own.

The PGA Tour Champions remains a wonderful choice for corporate entertainment. Fans can watch some great golf, learn more about how to play the game, acquire tips on how to score and a have chance to help others in the name of charity. But, Hawkins also is right in that the original concept of the Senior Tour has finished its life cycle. Therefore, it’s time to shift gears and promote the PGA Tour Champions under a new identity that takes advantage of all it has to offer.

Phil Blackmar won three times on the PGA Tour in a career spanning 443 starts from 1984 to 2007. He also won once in 83 starts on the Champions Tour. Blackmar is an on-air correspondent with Golf Channel.

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