Still in the swing of things
Champions Tour has plenty of over-50 star power for golf fans
CONCORD, Mass. For 17 years, Portland's golf community became used to and, in some ways, spoiled by the casual nature of the Fred Meyer Challenge and its star-studded talent.
The Jeld-Wen Tradition is going to be a taste of something different, though it will be similar in some ways.
Peter Jacobsen always lured a parade of PGA Tour stars, along with legends such as Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Lee Trevino and Chi Chi Rodriguez, to the Challenge, a two-day event that the players knew would be fun, relaxed and profitable.
The Tradition, to be staged Aug. 28-31 at the Reserve Vineyards and Golf Club in Aloha, is the final leg of the five majors on the Champions (over age 50) Tour. Tournament director Ed Ellis says 28 of the top 31 money-winners in 2002 and nearly all of the top money-winners thus far this year will compete. The very best of the old-timers will be on hand.
And, with $2 million in prize money third-richest on tour this year and major championship prestige on the line, it should be a good show.
'I think the fans will really enjoy it,' says former Portlander Tom Shaw, the 1993 champion of the Tradition who is in Massachusetts this week for the FleetBoston Classic.
'That time of year, the players are at the top of their game,' he says, 'and playing in a major, they will really be excited. The golf is pretty high-level. A lot of guys turn 50 and say, 'Gee, I didn't realize the play here is this good.' '
The Charles Schwab Cup is annually awarded to the top player on the Champions Tour, along with a $1 million annuity. Double points are given to the champions of the four majors.
'That's a big deal,' Ellis says. 'It's another reason the Tradition is special to the players.'
The Champions Tour began in 1980 behind the leadership of such notables as Sam Snead and Julius Boros. It had two official events and $250,000 in prize money (Palmer, making his tour debut, won the PGA Seniors Championship in December).
This year, there are 31 tournaments and more than $52 million in prize money, an average of $1.7 million per event.
Those figures are down from previous years it's the fewest number of official events since 1986 and the lowest total prize money since 1999. And there's concern about interest in the tour as legends such as Palmer and Trevino hit their late 60s and 70s and are less competitive. It's one reason why the name was changed from 'Seniors Tour' to 'Champions Tour.' It doesn't sound as aged, officials reasoned.
Most of the pros believe that the mass interest in Tiger Woods hurt the Champions Tour.
'It took interest away from our players and moved it back to the (PGA) Tour,' veteran Tom Kite says. 'Nothing against him, but he was just about everything in golf for a couple of years.'
Rodriguez agrees and, as a partial remedy, he wishes that the Champions Tour would relax its restrictions against the use of a golf cart during majors. That would be incentive for the older, still hugely popular players to continue to compete, he says.
'Tiger took fans from the Senior Tour,' Rodriguez says. 'He was great for golf, but he hurt the Seniors Tour. When your business is going bad, what do you do? You go back to basics. One thing we could do is allow carts.'
Rodriguez says he has decided not to play in the Tradition because he would have to walk the course.
'I don't want to walk, and I don't want to have to go to a doctor or beg to use a cart,' says Rodriguez, 68. 'Carts are very much a part of golf. All the golf courses use carts. Some of the players started complaining, and what is amazing is, some of them own golf courses and have carts on the course. I just don't understand.'
Still, there is reason for optimism for the future. Implementation of a more fan-friendly approach this year includes allowing certain fans and sponsors inside the ropes during tournament play, a series of clinics and instructional tips through the week and more microphones on players during television coverage.
'We have some good players starting out (on the Champions Tour),' says Craig Stadler, who had top-20 finishes in his first five Champions appearances, including three majors. 'You can't do anything about guys getting older. They are making some steps in the right direction, doing things with spectators and crowds and promotions.'
The influx of fiftysomething major names on the tour in recent years includes Stadler, Kite, Tom Watson, D.A. Weibring and Ben Crenshaw.
'And in the next couple of years, we will be able to add players turning 50 like Peter Jacobsen, Hal Sutton, Greg Norman, Nick Faldo and Seve Ballesteros,' Rodriguez says. 'They can really help. I hope they do.'
Stadler, who turned 50 in June, has always enjoyed playing in Portland. He missed only one of the 17 Fred Meyer Challenges. He has played the Reserve six times.
'It has been a great course for the Challenge,' Stadler says. 'It will be interesting to see what they do to it (for the Tradition), whether they bring the fairways in and put some rough in there. If not, the winner will go 25 under par. It's a very short golf course.'
Ellis says the Reserve's south course formerly known as the Fought course will play at about 7,000 yards, roughly the same as the tour's other three majors. The par-5 third hole will play as a 430-yard par 4. Instead of playing the 17th hole of the south course, the 18th hole of the north course will be used for the Tradition.
'And we are going to grow the rough up, which we have never done before at any tournament,' Ellis says. 'I don't think anyone will shoot 25 under.'
Stadler could win in Portland. So, too, could underappreciated Bruce Lietzke, the No. 1 money-winner on the tour this year. Or Watson, who won the Senior British Open last week. Or Corvallis' Bob Gilder, last year's No. 2 money-winner who is 11th this year.
'But you really only have eight guys with a realistic chance of winning, the same guys every week out here,' Rodriguez says.
Nobody older than 63 has ever won on the tour. Could it happen at the Tradition?
'You know what Arnold says about majors?' Rodriguez says with a laugh. 'At our age, we shouldn't even buy green bananas.'