LIFE begins at 50 for a great many pro golfers these days - and if you don't believe it, take a look at what's been happening on the Senior PGA Tour. Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, and other big names of the past are out there winning tournaments again - and earning money at a rate far exceeding that of their glory days. Corporate America has latched onto a good thing, pouring millions of dollars into the tour to sponsor events. Television has also jumped on the bandwagon. And from the looks of things, it's going to keep on getting bigger and better.
Created in 1980 with just two tournaments and total prize money of $250,000, the senior tour has grown explosively to the point where it now offers 41 tournaments with more than $14 million in official prize money, plus millions more in special category awards.
Meanwhile, tour promoters are getting ready to sing ``Happy Birthday'' in their most enthusiastic voices late this year and early in 1990 when Lee Trevino and then Jack Nicklaus turn 50 and become eligible. The popular, crowd-pleasing Trevino says he's never been more excited, and is gearing up for a full schedule of 30 or more tournaments. Nicklaus isn't expected to play nearly that much, but it goes without saying that his presence will stimulate interest and swell the galleries whenever and wherever he does appear.
What has brought about this phenomenon?
``Corporate involvement'' is the phrase used most frequently to explain it - and indeed that appears to be the principal answer.
Sponsorship of regular PGA tournaments is a longstanding tradition. Many businessmen play golf for both social and professional reasons, so it makes sense to a lot of companies to get involved. Not only are there advertising and public relations opportunities, but there's a chance to offer clients or one's own executives the full VIP treatment, topped by an opportunity to hobnob with the stars in the pro-am tournament.
All this seems to be equally true - in some ways more so - with senior tour events. Many corporate decisionmakers are also in their 50s and 60s and thus able to relate to the ``senior'' mystique - especially the chance to go out and play a round with one of their heroes.
``It's just an unforgettable experience - a chance to play with the legends of the game,'' says Pat Cataldo, a vice-president with Digital Equipment Corporation, which sponsors the annual tour stop here at Nashawtuc Country Club to the tune of $300,000 in prize money plus all the ancillary costs that go into running such an event.
``Can you imagine having played golf for 20 or 25 years, being at the pairings party, and having your name picked to play with Gary Player or Arnold Palmer?'' Mr. Cataldo asks. ``That's something you are going to continue to talk about for years to come.''
Recognizing this, the Senior Tour has cut its regular tournament format to three days and 54 holes so it can offer two days of pro-am play, as opposed to the regular tour setup of one pro-am day followed by a four-day, 72-hole event.
As for the business benefits, Cataldo talks of ``dedicated time'' that company executives can spend with customers on and off the course during these events.
But obviously the main attraction is the golf itself - especially the pro-am. As he put it: ``You don't get your customers out there participating in an oldtimers' baseball game with Ted Williams.''