Ft. Pierce, Fla. — It's like watching a golf hall of fame come to life. There, with the sweetest waggle seen on any fairway is Samuel Jackson Snead, a professional for half a century. There, with the endearing tug at his slacks, is Arnold Palmer, still the most popular player in the game by some estimates. There, too, are Roberto De Vicenzo, Julius Boros, and Billy Casper, paunchier perhaps but still proud and crisp strikers of the ball.
It's the Senior PGA Tour, about the hottest phenomenon in golf and as lucrative in 1985 as the regular tour was at the start of the last decade.
Formally launched in 1980 with a smattering of tournaments played for inconsequential prize money, the ``Over the Hill'' circuit this year will play upwards of 30 tournaments worth a total of about $6 million! A half dozen events will be carried on national cable television (ESPN).
Another million dollars will go to the players through the new Mazda Senior Series, a year-long points competition that will culminate in a mixed-team tournament with leading players from the LPGA Tour. Mazda also is sponsoring the television package.
The schedule opened last weekend at the fittingly named new Sunrise Senior Classic here. Miller Barber, a longtime pro known as Mr. X to his colleagues, carded a 5-under-par 211 for a one-shot victory over Orville Moody.
The season runs through the PGA Senior Championship at nearby Palm Beach Gardens in December. Along the way the senior tour will visit such important markets as Los Angeles, Houston, Denver, Dallas, Cleveland, Tulsa, and Tucson. Next year Golf Digest magazine will stage a showcase tournament in the biggest market of all, metropolitan New York.
``It's found money -- the nicest thing that could have happened to us,'' says Barber, a senior star who still can hold his own on the regular tour. ``I'm making more money than I ever made in my prime, and it just keeps getting better.''
Barber made almost $300,000 in 1984, winning four tournaments, including the US Senior Open. In all he's earned $750,000 and won 15 times as a senior (players 50 and older are eligible for the tour).
Don January, Barber's chief senior rival, also has won 16 tournaments and leads him in career money with about $800,000. January won three times and $329,000 in 1984, when the two men shared player-of-the-year honors.
``Do I feel like Jesse James out here?'' January responds. ``I'd just like to keep it up for a couple more years. I thought I'd be retired by now, but this is too much fun -- and too profitable.''
Palmer hasn't won as often as January and Barber, the Texas friends for 30 years, but he's galvanized the senior tour as surely as he did the regular tour 25 years ago. It has been said by young pros that they should pay Palmer 25 cents of every dollar they earn playing golf today. If that's so, the seniors should pay him 50 cents on the dollar.
Says Bob Toski, the superstar of teaching who plays the senior tour part time, ``He's always been a magnetic personality, and he will continue to be. He's the magic we need. He may not be the best player in history, but he's certainly the most popular.''
Palmer will continue to compete somewhat on the regular tour, but probably will play at least a dozen senior tournaments this season.
In truth, the expanded senior schedule needs him more than might be suspected. The depth of talent isn't great, and the sudden growth to 30 tournaments ultimately may prove too much for most of the grandfatherly players.
``Twenty to 24 tournaments would be a good number,'' says a source in Commissioner Deane Beman's office, which runs both men's tours. ``We'll see a little shaking out of weaker tournaments, but the tour is solidly established and should continue to grow as more and more `name' players become eligible.''
Late this year the senior tour will welcome Gary Player and Chi Chi Rodri-guez, both colorful personalities who can beat anyone on their better days. Player, in fact, nearly won the PGA Champion-ship last summer.
Overall, the seniors don't drive the ball as far as they formerly did (250 yards instead of 275, say) and don't putt as adroitly, but playing shorter and frequently easier courses, the differences are difficult to detect. Senior courses average around 6,600 yards versus the regular tour's 7,100.
An appealing aspect of the senior surge is the players' gratefulness for an unexpected second career. They are more relaxed and fun to follow now, and amateurs love to play with them in revenue-generating pro-am events.
Where else can you see a hall of fame come to life almost every week?