- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 27, 2002

BALTIMORE Gary Player hops onto the putting green at Caves Valley Golf Club, the site of this week's Senior U.S. Open, and watches quietly as Senior Tour rookie Ben Crenshaw works intently on his legendary putting stroke.
"It's like watching Leonardo da Vinci practice his painting," says Player, spreading his arms in appreciation of the scene and sharing a laugh with the gallery encircling the green.
This was the kind of moment that built the Senior Tour one golf legend joking with another for the benefit of those lucky enough to be within earshot. This was exactly the kind of moment former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman envisioned when he and a handful of aging stars hatched the idea for an over-50 circuit in 1980. And it's exactly the kind of moment that is becoming more of a rarity on a Senior Tour sliding steadily toward extinction.
You see, the Senior Tour was never really about the competition. It was about the atmosphere. Shake hands with Arnie. Swap one-liners with Lee. Chuckle at Chi Chi the swordsman.
"If you want to watch good golf, go see Tiger," said Chi Chi Rodriguez at last week's Greater Baltimore Classic. "If you want to see a show, come see us."
Problem is, "us" isn't what it used to be. The five principals who carried the Tour for nearly two decades Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Player, Rodriguez and Lee Trevino have been reduced to ceremonial status. Each member of the Big Five has seen the Big 60 come and go. The quintet has accounted for just one Senior Tour victory since 1998. Only Player still shows up virtually every week. And only Player, 66, and Palmer, 72, are in the field at this week's third senior major of the season.
"I think the Senior Tour probably needs to look at itself right now," Palmer said yesterday.
Not if it's got a queasy stomach. The current state of the cottontop tour is pure Pepto-Bismol stuff.
After TV ratings hit an all-time low last season, the Senior PGA Tour signed a four-year, $12million deal with CNBC and agreed to a series of initiatives that were supposed to make the senior game more fan friendly. These included letting one fan walk inside the ropes with a selected group as an "honorary observer," allowing fans to follow behind the final group in the fairway over the final four holes of each event and in-round interviews with players, the questions coming from on-line viewers.
Have the changes worked? Not if you consider the laughable interest at last week's Greater Baltimore Classic. A paltry total of 30,000 fans showed up at Hayfields CC outside Baltimore to watch J.C. Snead collect his first Senior Tour victory since 1995. To put that ghastly gate figure in perspective, consider that 100,000 showed up over the weekend at TPC at Avenel for the final two rounds of this year's Kemper Open, and 300,000 showed up last week to cheer on Phil Mickelson and his PGA Tour brethren at the Greater Hartford Open.
And yet, Snead made roughly a third as much as Mickelson for his victory although the event wasn't a tenth as successful at the gate and even less so on the squawk box. That disparity makes the Senior Tour a suspect investment relative to the regular tour, a fact that has sponsors fleeing from the over-50 circuit.
Senior staple Hale Irwin attributes sponsorship defections to the lagging economy. But Palmer has a far more convincing answer.
"There is no demand right now [for the Senior Tour], and part of the reason for that is that it's pretty easy to get a Senior event," said Palmer, who thinks the Senior Tour's primary problem might be a schedule that includes 37 official events. "I think that if [commissioner Tim Finchem] limited the Senior Tour to a specific number of events each year and then to a degree guaranteed the field, I think it would improve tremendously and the demand for the Senior Tour would be much greater."
Short of significantly truncating the schedule, the Senior Tour's best alternative might be lowering the minimum age requirement from 50 to 45 or 47.
"It's still a little bit of a powder keg, because everybody out here has waited until 50," said Irwin, the favorite this week at Caves Valley. "But now with the landscape being a little different, I think it's important for us to examine that and say, 'Is it not time to at least discuss the possibility of dropping that Senior Tour age?'"
But even that drastic change might not have the desired effect of boosting interest. After all, name a PGA Tour player in that fortysomething category that would have a startling impact on the Senior Tour. Greg Norman? Guess again. Do you really think the 47-year-old Shark, given his strained relationship with the PGA Tour, feels like rushing in to fix Finchem's sputtering sidecar? Please, Norman would sooner enter into indentured servitude as Lanny Wadkins' personal caddie.
There are any number of reasons why the Senior Tour isn't succeeding in its current state:
1. The Big Five are frail and fading.
2. Tour rookies Crenshaw and Fuzzy Zoeller haven't been as magnetic as hoped. Crenshaw would rather be at home with his three young daughters. And Zoeller, though he did break through at the Senior PGA Championship, has been less entertaining since his run-in with the PC police at the 1997 Masters.
3. The world has run out of Viagra punch lines.
4. Old guys in golf carts don't exactly strike us as athletes.
5. Tiger Woods is 24 years from eligibility.
"Unfortunately, the one thing we don't have, and won't have for a long, long time is the one thing that everybody wants to write about and everybody wants to talk about," said Tom Kite, referring to Woods and his current pursuit of the Grand Slam.
For years, the Senior Tour had a Tigeresque commodity in Palmer and his pals. But somewhere along the line, the tour forgot its entertain-first mandate and began taking itself seriously. Present stalwarts Irwin, Bruce Fleisher, Tom Kite, Allen Doyle, Gil Morgan and Larry Nelson are competitors, not characters. And quite frankly, nobody cares about their golf games. After all, we got a first-hand look at the level of golf Irwin and Kite are now capable of at Bethpage two weeks ago, when the pair represented the Senior Tour by missing the U.S. Open cut with a combined score of 36 over.
The success of the Senior circuit was built on charisma, not competition. And what Palmer once gave the tour was more charisma than any 10 current players combined. There's no shame in that. Excluding Woods, Palmer still has more charisma than any 10 PGA Tour players combined.
Palmers don't crop up every day, or even every decade.
That's nobody's fault, but it is the Senior Tour's problem. Fact is, the Senior Tour was basically created for the King. And when the King finally calls it quits, there may no longer be a need for his over-50 court.

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