In its infancy, the Senior PGA Tour provided a stage on which Arnold Palmer could still play the role of "The King." Other past golfing heroes were his court, providing their own fans with a few more lasting memories. By the time it reached adulthood - marking its 21st birthday last year - the tour was in trouble.
With the exception of the four major championships and a few other events, attendance was dropping. Corporate interest was waning, too, as evidenced by the lack of television exposure and some sponsors who failed to renew their contracts.
The competition, though often top-notch, wasn't compelling. Watching a bunch of sometimes grumpy old men beat each other down for exorbitant purses was not as exciting as, say, watching Tiger Woods do that to the rest of the PGA Tour.
"It became more like the regular tour; it became too serious," Tom Kite said recently. "If we try to compete with the regular tour, we're going to come up short. We can't go head-to-head and do the same things they do. We've got to do different things.
"Last year, and maybe the year before that, was kind of an awakening for the players out here and for the tour staff. If we didn't shape up and improve some things, we were going to be going the wrong way. But I think things have improved this year. I think we're putting out a good product."
In Baltimore for a two-week run - the Greater Baltimore Classic begins Friday at Hayfields Country Club in Hunt Valley and ends Sunday, followed by the U.S. Senior Open at Caves Valley Golf Club in Owings Mills from June 27 to 30 - the senior tour will put on a happier face than the one it has worn in recent years.
It will be more fan-friendly. For example, this week's event will offer a question-and-answer session after the pairings party Tuesday evening at the Hunt Valley Marriott, as well as contests. Winners will walk inside the ropes during the tournament or caddie a few holes for the pairings of pros and amateurs during the pro-am.
Unlike its early years, the senior tour's audience includes a far wider demographic range. The galleries are much younger, encompassing everyone from grade school kids to grandparents, with most of the fans now being baby boomers who know a 7-wood from a 7-iron.
"Golf fans, particularly senior tour fans, are avid golfers, and they're always searching for ways to improve," said Jeff Monday, the senior tour's chief of operations. "The senior tour certainly lends itself in multiple ways to provide an up-close and personal experience."
For those fresh off the regular PGA Tour, it can be a difficult adjustment.
Playing to the audience
"It is a serious competition, but it's a different kind of competition, and it's important for the guys to understand that," said Andy North, a two-time U.S. Open champion who splits his duties between playing the senior tour and analyzing play on the regular tour for ESPN.
It was obvious the past couple of years to tour officials that changes needed to be made.
"What we ran into last year was taking a look at all aspects of the senior tour, and the experiences for the spectator on-site, the TV viewer, for the sponsors, and all our constituents and clients," Monday said. "The No. 1 key is the players. While they still compete at a very high level, they're also very accessible and approachable."
Monday and other senior tour officials hoped that breaking down whatever barriers still existed between players and fans would bring a new audience. It has resulted in on-course interviews during telecasts, additional pro-ams before events and other forums to raise interest.
"What we have to do is make sure that we're putting the players in situations where they can utilize their personality traits," Monday said.
The telecasts, a huge part of the senior tour's past success and future survival, now include veteran teaching pro Jim McLean re-creating shots - both good and bad - so viewers can pick up tips. Also fans e-mail questions to be answered on air.
"We want to make this an interactive medium," Monday said.
But there is no denying that the senior tour, though not in the trouble it was in a year ago, is still clearly in transition.
Old legends such as Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, as well as superstar personalities Lee Trevino and Chi Chi Rodriguez, are winding down their storied careers while former PGA Tour fan favorites Ben Crenshaw and Fuzzy Zoeller are adjusting to their new lives.
Zoeller brought the senior tour a much-needed boost of publicity by winning the Senior PGA Championship this month at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio.
Other players on the tour have impressive resumes but less visibility. The golf played by Dave Stockton, Ray Floyd, Hale Irwin and Larry Nelson, and later by Bruce Fleisher and Allen Doyle - has been high level. Yet hardly anyone noticed.
"The senior tour can't make superstars," Fleisher said. "The only superstars we have are players who were superstars on the regular tour."
Bunch of free-swingers