It isn't the good old days Senior Tour: Golden oldies like Chi Chi and Arnie have been forced into the background by million-dollar fields and fans aren't happy.

July 02, 1998|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Miller Barber pointed at the crowd standing three-deep behind the practice tee at Hobbit's Glen Golf Club yesterday morning, fans of all ages craning their necks and clicking their cameras to get a glimpse at or picture of Chi Chi Rodriguez.

Rodriguez spent more time cracking jokes than drives. Unfortunately, this is the biggest stage Rodriguez finds these days. As the Senior PGA Tour moves away from its nostalgic roots and heads in the direction of million-dollar tournaments every week, it has left many of its early stars behind.

"We've gotten away from the original concept," said Barber, who led the Senior Tour in earnings in 1981 and 1982, its first full two years of operation. "That's the reason our [television] ratings are down. We've got to find a way to get these guys like Chi Chi and Don January back on television."

It won't happen this week, when the first State Farm Senior Classic will be played in Columbia for a $1.25 million purse and televised on ESPN. It won't happen this year when the tour finishes out a schedule that now includes 41 events played for more than $45 million in prize money.

But Barber said that there have been preliminary discussions for trying to come up with a new concept that will somehow integrate the so-called Super Seniors -- players over 60 -- into the regular competition with the tour's current group of stars.

For now, the Senior Tour is like many things in society these days: It's not what it used to be. "It's not any fun," said Barber, now 67, who won the last of his 24 Senior PGA events in 1989. "This was fun and games when it started."

What changed the feel of the Senior Tour was the infusion of big-money sponsors such as Cadillac in the mid-to-late 1980s, and, more recently, of players such as Hale Irwin, Gil Morgan and Tour rookie Larry Nelson. They don't attract the legions of fans as Arnold Palmer or even Rodriguez do.

The domination of Irwin and Morgan last year -- they combined to win 15 tournaments and more than $4.5 million in prize money -- certainly raised the bar of competition. But it also raised the issue of whether it chased away some fans and, more importantly, sponsors.

Television ratings are down slightly this year from last, but an ESPN spokesman said yesterday that it is less than 10 percent of the households. Historically, Super Seniors have never been that competitive on the tour, with the last of seven victories by players over 60 coming two years ago.

"We don't want to get away from what the Senior Tour used to be," said Irwin, 54. "But we also don't want to stay in place. There's been almost a panic situation. I get asked the question, 'What's wrong with the Senior Tour?' a lot these days. Like many organizations, things can always be better. But we seem to fall back to that calamitous reaction and be critical of anything we find."

The Senior Tour used to be criticized for not playing courses longer than 6,500 yards or for setting up pins that were too easy to reach. Now it regularly plays courses approaching or exceeding 6,800 such as Hobbit's Glen, which at 6,983 yards is among the longest the Senior Tour plays.

Can a happy medium be found?

"It's a dilemma, no question about it," said Tim Crosby, who as the PGA Tour's vice president for tournament business affairs helps oversee the operation of the Senior Tour. "We do want to maintain that historical perspective. We are constantly looking at ways at accommodating these kind of issues."

But Crosby admitted that it might be difficult to make those accommodations, especially when it comes to television. Since most Senior Tour telecasts run either 90 minutes or two hours -- compared with two to three hours on a PGA Tour event -- it's hard to show players back in the pack.

"There are a handful of players who can make a significant impact on television," he said. "In the early days, the tour was star-driven. We acknowledge we need to get Arnold Palmer on television, but the viewer also wants to see the guy who wins the tournament."

Palmer, who will play in this week's tournament, has not won a Senior Tour event in 10 years and was recently involved in a flap that sums up the nostalgia-vs.-competition question. At a recent tournament in Pittsburgh, Palmer was given a 7 a.m. tee time on Sunday because of his poor play.

While Palmer, whose legend was spawned in nearby Latrobe, Pa., fumed, his fellow Super Seniors were even more livid.

"It was ridiculous to have Arnold Palmer play that early," Barber said.

If anything, that could happen with more regularity as the Senior Tour becomes even more competitive when its next group of future stars -- most notably Tom Watson, Tom Kite and Lanny Wadkins -- turn 50 in the next year. None has ever been confused with Rodriguez or Lee Trevino in terms of personality.

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