A good walk unspoiled for Senior golf spectators


July 12, 1998|By Mike Burns

IF THERE was any doubt that golf is a game for a lifetime, it was liberally dispelled by the Senior PGA tournament at Hobbit's Glen in Columbia last weekend.

The delightfully sunny weather and unusually low humidity drew a good crowd to the competition of the over-50 touring pros.

"Good crowd" doesn't just mean numbers, either. The spectators were enthusiastic, appreciative, courteous and even reverent of the threesomes that toured the fastidiously maintained course.

The overall caliber of golf didn't match that of the PGA Tour, but that made little difference to the fans. They were there to see the players they had watched, or heard about, for decades.

Young people were everywhere, any number of them knowledgeable about the achievements of these veterans of the tour. No sentimental journey for them, but a chance to see the greats of the game.

There was a casual familiarity with the supportive crowds, even though golfers were competing for a chunk of a million-dollar-plus purse.

Lee Trevino asked a spectator's advice, in good humor, after a mishit shot early in the final round. Chi Chi Rodriguez continued his virtually nonstop banter with the crowd. Jose Maria Canizares offered a bilingual compliment -- "guapa, beautiful" -- to a chocolate-smeared 6-year-old spectator who trudged along the rough beside him.

No golden oldies show

But this was no golden oldies show, either. It was tournament of surprising shots and masterful skill, demonstrations of a lifetime of expertise that most of us will never be able to duplicate at any stage in our lives.

The competition was stiff. Few people were openly rooting for a particular player to win the three-day tournament and the $187,500 first-place purse. The crowds were ever hoping for the best from every player, cheering good shots, joining in a groan of genuine disappointment at every near-miss.

The biggest groups followed long-time crowd pleasers such as Arnold Palmer, Mr. Trevino, Hale Irwin and Mr. Rodriguez. They strained to cheer successful shots by these men who have become legends of the game.

These players have earned their public affection not only by booming drives and pinpoint putting, not just by the numbers of tournaments they won, but by their humanity and the contributions they have made to golf. The gallery's acclaim is for their lifetimes of golf, not necessarily for the day's score.

Maryland Special Olympics was the beneficiary of the event, a main reason why Arnold Palmer agreed to participate and boost the attendance with Arny's Army of fans. He finished far back, but led the event in supporters.

The Seniors is no old-timers' day. Participants aren't making guest appearances in oversized uniforms in a game that they can no longer play. Golf is different. Senior Tour players age gracefully, for the most part. They can still sink a 30-foot putt, place a chip shot on the flag, even clink out a drive (with metal wood) that could match one hit 30 years ago (with wooden wood).

"The Game for a Lifetime," revered teaching pro Harvey Penick titled his last book of wisdom and reminiscences. "The Senior Tour is still the home of classic swings that have stood the test of time, as well as classic sluggers who have been winners for decades."

That is one advantage of the Senior PGA Tour: to show how a deep knowledge of the game can compensate for a decline in physical capability.

The hardest sport

Golf may well be the hardest sport. Pro basketball players are the best athletes. Hockey players are the fastest; soccer players are the fastest on feet (sorry, LAXers, you don't rate with either.) Football and rugby may be toughest on the body.

Golf's challenge is that the game is never mastered, an illusion of perfection never realized. Low scores, dazzling shots, tournament victories -- they are all possible.

Still, there's always something more to be achieved.

Every golfer knows, and will often tell anyone within earshot, there's always at least one putt or chip or drive over 18 holes that should have been better, a missed opportunity to save a stroke and better a score. The what-ifs and shoulda-dones are a tradition, a continuing recognition that the game itself is harder than even the best-intentioned, wisest or best-endowed can achieve.

That way madness lies, as Shakespeare might put it. Except in golf, where the next round always promises a new opportunity to approach the grail (but never to hold it).

Those seniors on the pro tour remind us of their glory of decades past, and of our past struggles over the four-mile course (straight as the crow flies, though seldom does a golf ball travel so straight).

They also demonstrate how to play the game beyond mid-life.

The Senior Tour is set to come back to the Columbia golf course for the next two years. As with these senior golfers, we wish it many happy returns.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 7/12/98

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