Seniors confront life beyond the fairways Illness: The death of Larry Gilbert and cancer diagnoses force players to deal with issues larger than their games.

July 09, 1998|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Three weeks ago, the AT&T Canadian Senior Open was played without its defending champion. Jack Kiefer was home in Florida after doctors discovered a cancerous growth on his spine. The former club pro is beginning to undergo treatment.

Today, the Ford Senior Players Championship will begin without its defending champion. Larry Gilbert passed away in January, five months after an inoperable tumor was found in his lungs and seven months after he had won the biggest tournament of his career.

If the atmosphere surrounding Senior Tour events doesn't seem as intense as on the PGA Tour, it's for a good reason.

It's not.

As heated as Sunday's back-nine shootout got at the Hobbit's Glen Golf Club in Columbia during the final round of the inaugural State Farm Senior Classic, those playing in it have a much better understanding of what life-and-death situations are than they did before they turned 50.

"What these situations do is bring the reality that it can happen to you," said Bruce Summerhays, whose 18-foot birdie putt on the last hole helped him win by a shot. "It's not easy. This is a small fraternity of players, 78 every week and 125 guys playing tournaments. We're very close."

Gilbert's death and Kiefer's illness are just the latest in a 15-month stretch when the Senior Tour has been forced to deal with a heavy dose of reality. Both the legendary Arnold Palmer and Jim Colbert, one of the most successful players in the history of the Senior Tour, were found to have prostate cancer last year.

Palmer and Colbert have since returned to the tour after being treated, and each has received a clean bill of health. In return, they have become involved in a fund-raising effort called CaP CURE, where people pledge money toward research into prostate cancer for each birdie a player makes. The organization expects to raise more than $4 million this year.

Dave Stockton recalled hearing the news that Gilbert, 55, had cancer.

"I was angry," said Stockton, "because here was a guy who had just won the biggest tournament of his life and was on his way to becoming one of the best players on the Senior Tour and all that was being taken away from him and he was being taken away from us."

Gilbert, a former three-time national PGA club pro champion from Louisville, had proved to be capable of competing against the game's best older players from the moment he made the Senior Tour in 1993. He was in the midst of his best year when the tumor was found.

At the time of his illness, Gilbert was ranked seventh on the Senior Tour money list with a victory at the tournament in Dearborn, Mich., as well as a second, three thirds and six other top 10 finishes in 22 events. He would play only once more, in his hometown of Louisville, Ky., in September. He tied for 49th.

Gilbert wound up ninth on last year's money list, with $902,816, the last $50,000 coming after the players gave him and his wife, Brenda, last-place money from the Senior Tour Championship for which he qualified. They gave Brenda Gilbert another $50,000 from this year's MasterCard Championship. Gilbert died that week.

"It's something you need to stop and think about once in a while," Senior Tour veteran Dale Douglass said last week in Columbia. "Making a three-foot putt becomes a pretty non-important event in the scheme of things."

Gilbert's memory has lived on with his former competitors this year. During a rain delay at a tournament in Charlotte, N.C., in May, ESPN was filling its allotted air time with highlights from last year's tournament. The image of Gilbert, who lost in a three-way playoff there, came on the screen.

"There was a silent pause in the locker room," recalled Jim Albus, who like Gilbert had followed a successful career as a club pro with a victory at the Ford Senior Players Championship. "A hush came over the room. It was only a year ago that he was out there competing."

To honor that memory, Stockton asked the organizers of the Ford Senior Players Championship to put Gilbert's name on a nine-hole pro-am event in which the players join with area juniors selected through a lottery. Summerhays won that event Monday.

"It was special for me," Summerhays said yesterday from Dearborn. "Larry was a good friend of mine, and knowing how much he loved his family and he loved working with kids, it was the right thing to do. I felt good for Larry Gilbert."

The tournament itself will be dedicated this year to Gilbert's memory. Brenda Gilbert and several family members are expected to be in Michigan today and stay for the weekend. "Obviously, it's going to be an emotional week for them," Greg Wheeler, the tournament's chairman, said last week.

It's also going to be emotional for the players, who have turned the prayers they said last year for Palmer and Colbert and those that went unanswered for Gilbert to Kiefer, 58, who has won more than $3 million in his seven-year career on the Senior Tour. But come Sunday, they will have to turn their emotions to the task at hand.

Winning the second major of the year on the Senior Tour.

"We're all going to be thinking about Larry and Jack," said Stockton. "But that's not going to deter somebody from having a great tournament."

That, too, is the reality of the Senior Tour.

Pub Date: 7/09/98

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