Golden Opportunity For Golfing Greats

The Legends tournament, after initial skepticism, has led to thriving senior tour

EIGHTEEN years ago TV sports producer Fred Raphael saw a golfing sight that made him weep.

The founder of the Legends of Golf tournament drank in a practice tee lined with many of the greatest names in the game. ''I had tried for years to get these players together and had finally managed to do it,'' he recalls. ''Here they all were hitting golf balls and I didn't care who was standing near me; I just cried. I was so happy and so proud.''

Today the 18th edition of the three-day Legends tournament, sponsored by Liberty Mutual Insurance Co., tees off in La Quinta, Calif., where it has moved after 17 years in Austin, Texas.

Raphael will be there to greet and reminisce with a host of players from the inaugural 1978 event -- names like Sam Snead and Tommy Bolt, as well as with Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, and others who have since joined the 50-and-over golfing set.

The Legends tournament got the ball rolling for senior professional golf, which is now organized into the wildly successful PGA Senior Tour. ''We started out saying we only wanted five events,'' Raphael says via phone from La Quinta. ''Then there were 10, 15, 25, and now it's up to about 40.''

He thinks the momentum could continue, too, even though golden agers like Palmer are expected to scale back their playing commitments.

As that happens, however, established stars from the regular PGA Tour will ''graduate'' to the senior circuit (next up could be two-time US Open champion Hale Irwin).

''With some players making more as seniors than they did on the regular tour,'' Raphael says, ''there's no question in my mind that players will rethink their entire golf life. What they now have is a mulligan [a replayed shot]. They can play for five years with limited success and still feel they've got a chance.''

In fact, some of the biggest winners on the current circuit have come out of the woods. Jim Albus, for example, won only $3,750 on the regular tour but has earned more than $2.5 million since joining the senior tour in 1990.

Rich purses and extensive TV coverage have altered the playing environment. ''The players have gotten a lot more serious,'' Raphael says. ''They keep saying they're having as much fun, but you can see the pressure that's on them to get out there and play well and win.''

The Legends tournament, he believes, has been able to retain its fun atmosphere because of a two-man, best-ball team format. ''They can play off one another,'' he explains. ''One guy hits a bad shot, the other guy hits a good one. One guy goes for it, the other can just make a par.''

Raphael had never played golf until he became the producer of ''Shell's Wonderful World of Golf,'' a popular television series in the 1960s.

At the 1963 Masters tournament, an offhand remark by golfing great Gene Sarazen planted the idea for the Legends tournament with Raphael. When he began pursuing the inspiration years later, he found little interest among broadcasters or advertisers. Eventually, however, NBC nibbled.

Raphael envisioned a taped or filmed presentation because he didn't want to ''show my Legends shanking a shot.'' NBC was firm, though, in insisting on live coverage.

As it turned out, Snead went on a birdie binge over the final holes to help him and partner Gardner Dickinson score a dramatic one-shot victory. Senior golfers haven't looked back since.

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