BOSTON — For 17 years now, golf's Senior PGA Tour has been the model for how to showcase athletes making extended curtain calls. What began with just two tournaments and $250,000 in prize money is now up to 44 events and a total purse of nearly $41 million. Those numbers exceed even those of the hard-charging Ladies Professional Golf Association tour, which is open to all ages, not just 50-and-over shotmakers. Such success was built on filling senior fields with recognizable stars who built their reputations playing on the regular men's tour, from a founding father like Sam Snead to current leader Hale Irwin, both of whom are profiled below.
Golfer Shines in Regular, Senior Tours
Hail to Hale. That's the theme these days on the men's senior golf tour, where Hale Irwin is king. He has won more 1997 tournaments (six) than any professional, and earned $1,489,561. Only one player, Tiger Woods, has taken home more at press time, and he plays on the more lucrative PGA Tour.
Irwin is at that interesting stage of his career where he straddles the regular and senior tours. Mostly he concentrates on the Senior PGA Tour, which he joined partway through 1995.
"Most of us who have played the regular Tour and experienced that level of intensity and competition may yearn for something a little less hectic," he says.
But he returns to the scene of perhaps his greatest triumph to play in the PGA Championship this week.
In 1974, the tournament was the US Open, but the site is the same - the Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y. At the time, Irwin was just beginning to build his professional portfolio and was dumbstruck by the course's severe rough. Everybody struggled, and even in victory Irwin finished 7-over-par. This first major title helped him lay a strong foundation.
"I don't like to get caught up in the nostalgia," he said during a visit to the Boston area for the BankBoston Classic, which he won, "but I think there's a point in your career when you should go back to where your career was really defined." For him, that's Winged Foot, even though he won two more US Opens on other courses, in 1979 and 1990.
Irwin showed great promise while still in college, winning the 1967 college championship at the University of Colorado. He was also an academic All-American. As a professional golfer, he never rose higher than sixth in the yearly rankings but finished in the top 10 eight times. During nearly three decades on the PGA Tour, he's won 20 titles. After earning Senior Tour Rookie of the Year honors after his first, partial season, he came back to finish second to Jim Colbert on last year's earnings list.
Though 1996 was a great year, Irwin looks back on it as a learning experience. "I had two wins, seven seconds, and an opportunity to win all four [senior] majors. As good as last year was, though, it was frustrating because I didn't win more than I did. "
This year he says he's tried not to force things, but to let them "take their course." He looks like he'll wind up as the year-long champion, something neither Palmer nor Nicklaus, playing abbreviated schedules, ever accomplished. He seems content just to finish No. 1 and dispense with an all-out assault on the record book.
Trailblazer Has Down-Home Style
Every time a golfer on the Senior PGA Tour cashes a big check, partial credit for the opportunity belongs to Sam Snead - back-country shotmaker, storyteller, and long-playing icon of the game.
Snead was the honorary chairman of a group that met in 1980 to establish an ongoing senior circuit. He was a natural for the post, having the year before become the first player to shoot his age in a regular tour event when he carded a 67 at the Quad Cities Open. Two days later, he fired a 66 in the final round.
Today the pro emeritus at the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., still plays in the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf that launched the Senior PGA Tour. "I'd actually rather watch the senior players than I would the regular tour, but then I don't know many of those flat bellies," he says via phone, comparing the sleek younger crowd to the 50-and-over set.
The son of mountain-dwelling Virginia farmers, the smooth-swinging Snead is known for being a self-made golfer who fashioned golf cups out of tomato cans. He was able to cut through privileged country-club society with his well-oiled golf game and his down-home humor. A sample one-liner: "These greens are so fast I have to hold my putter over the ball and hit it with the shadow."
Hogan, Snead, and Byron Nelson, all born in 1912, were major rivals in the 1940s. Snead joined Nelson in Fort Worth, Texas, the other week to pay his final respects to Hogan. These three were the only players on the men's tour to produce seasons with 10 or more tournament wins. Snead is the game's all-time leader in PGA tour victories, with 81, a record begun in 1936.
Snead lost some from this total when certain events were deemed unofficial. At the time, he worried that, "Nicklaus is going to go by me and he's not going to have to win another tournament." In fact, Snead remains safely in the lead, with Nicklaus 11 wins behind.
Three of Snead's biggest victories occurred at the PGA Championship, which this week will be contested at the Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He also prevailed three times at the Masters and once at the British Open., where he won $600 but spent $2,000 making the trip over and back. The one title that always eluded him was the US Open.
Snead has witnessed major improvements in course maintenance, equipment, and prize money. At least a dozen players have already earned $1 million on this year's PGA Tour. Slammin' Sammy, on the other hand, only earned $620,126 during a 42-year career.