Aiming for the green

Competitiveness, not fan interaction, Champions Tour's focus

Senior Players Championship

October 07, 2008|By Don Markus | Don Markus,

As Loren Roberts took his victory walk down the 18th fairway at Baltimore Country Club during the final round of the inaugural Constellation Energy Senior Players Championship last year, he was greeted with polite applause. Tom Watson and Fred Funk drew significantly louder cheers.

It didn't surprise Roberts, who was about to win by six strokes.

"You have one guy who's a legend and the other guy who's very popular and is from Maryland," Roberts said recently. "I was just happy to be winning the golf tournament."

While fans are still looking for nostalgia from a tour that started out nearly 30 years ago as a way for the PGA Tour to build on the popularity of its players who had turned 50, the Champions Tour has changed dramatically in recent years.

Showmanship, once at the core of the success of the Senior Tour, the former name for the Champions Tour, has been replaced by gamesmanship. Grinning is no longer as commonplace as grinding, with players taking on more difficult golf courses in pursuit of purses larger than the ones they once played for on the regular tour.

"It's become very competitive, and not as much fun," said Bruce Fleisher, who went from winning once late in his PGA Tour career to a Senior Tour superstar who won seven times in his first season and 14 events in his first three years. "I don't think it will ever go back to the other way."

Certainly not this week, when the Champions Tour returns to Baltimore for the season's final major tournament.

With Watson out for the remainder of the year because of hip-replacement surgery, last year's biggest draw at Baltimore Country Club has been replaced by a committee of blue-collar players.

"Instead of there being six or seven guys to beat every week, there's 15," said Roberts, who has already won as many tournaments (eight) in three seasons on the Champions Tour as he did in 25 years on the PGA Tour. "That is the direction this has been moving."

Champions Tour president Mike Stevens said players can still engage the crowd with their shotmaking as Senior Tour legends such as Chi Chi Rodriguez and Lee Trevino once did with their theatrics.

Stevens points to this year's results: Of the first 25 events, 13 have been won by one stroke or in a playoff, with nine multiple champions. Despite increasing the length of the courses and the speed of the greens, the overall scoring average is up only a little more than a stroke, to 71.69.

"I feel our tour is as competitive as it's ever been. Fan-friendly is a whole different gamut," Stevens said. "By creating exciting golf, you create better competition. I think the two kind of work hand in hand. I think we do a really good job of delivering a really competitive tournament that's exciting, but it's not a sterile environment. We want it to be a fun environment."

Fleisher is not so sure.

At the recent SAS Championship in Cary, N.C., Fleisher found himself tied for the first-round lead at Prestonwood Country Club. He later joked that he had a "gallery of one," pointing to his wife, Wendy. It wasn't that fans were flocking to other players; they just weren't there.

"I'm not quite sure that the audience is important as long as the sponsors are happy," Fleisher said. "I don't think the spectators that come out play a big part. I think the bottom line is that they [the PGA Tour] couldn't care less if there are 50,000 or 5,000."

More important than the three rounds of golf were the four pro-am days leading up to the tournament, Fleisher said.

"This Champions Tour is about corporate entertainment. That's what they're trying to sell, that's why we have the tour," Fleisher said. "It's about the pro-ams, it's about the going to the pro-am parties, it's about spending time with the amateurs. That was the big thing we've been told that we're offering now."

There have been discussions about celebrity pro-am tournaments similar to the popular Pebble Beach event on the PGA Tour, along with reviving a mixed team event with the LPGA Tour. This summer, a tournament in Minnesota invited nine older legendary players for a weekend competition.

"We're keeping our core, but we're starting to branch out a little bit to bring in a few more elements to the Champions Tour that we think the fans are going to like," said Stevens, who took over as president of the Champions Tour in June and has worked for the PGA Tour and Nationwide Tour.

What would help are some big names with even bigger personalities, particularly Greg Norman, who appears to have no intentions of leaving his own corporate empire (not to mention his new wife, tennis legend Chris Evert) to play more events.

The rookie class for next year includes three of the regular tour's most popular players - Hal Sutton, who is expected out in the next few weeks, as well as Tom Lehman and Fred Couples - but they don't seem capable of drawing the kind of attention that would turn the Champions Tour into must-see golf.

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