The PGA Tour Champions debuted in 1980, shortly after, not so coincidentally, Arnold Palmer turned 50. When you have a new product to sell, who better to sell it than golf’s best pitchman?
Indeed, the Senior PGA Tour, as it was known at its inception, was a marquee-driven enterprise featuring Arnie on the marquee, and he did not disappoint. Palmer won 10 times, five of them senior majors. And the tour took firm root. In ensuing years and decades, other World Golf Hall of Famers drove interest to varying degrees: Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Peter Thomson, Gary Player, Hale Irwin, Larry Nelson, Fred Couples and Bernhard Langer.
But last year, only five tournaments were won by Hall of Famers, two by Langer, who turns 63 this year, and one each by Mark O’Meara, 62, Colin Montgomerie, 56, and Retief Goosen, 51 next month.
Moreover, only six Hall of Famers played 15 or more events in 2019—all of the above as well as Vijay Singh, who will be 57 next month, and Sandy Lyle, approaching 62. Neither Singh nor Lyle made an impact in 2019.
Eventually, time will begin to erode Langer’s game, with sooner is a prohibitive favorite over later. That leaves a bleak senior tour landscape headed by Goosen.
On the upside, however, is that help is potentially on the way from Ernie Els, Jim Furyk and Phil Mickelson. Potentially.
Els already has turned 50 and has indicated he is eager to join his contemporaries on the senior tour. He is entered in the season-opening Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai, which starts Thursday in Hawaii.
“I’ve had a great time out here [on the PGA Tour],” Els said last June. “It’s been quite a long time out here. And I’ll still play some of the events that I’m the past champion of, but I think I’m going to transition well onto the other side and play some golf on the Champions Tour and go see some of my old friends.”
Jim Furyk, who is not yet a Hall of Famer, but likely will be (17 victories, one a major and a member of nine Ryder Cup teams), turns 50 in May, and the frequency of his participation will depend on how well he plays on the PGA Tour.
“If I’m competitive and I feel like I’m knocking on the door and having opportunities to win, I’d like to play some out here,” Furyk said of the PGA Tour last year. “If that’s not the case, I’ll go to [the PGA Tour Champions] and see if I can be competitive out there.”
A singles hitter in what has become a home run derby on the PGA Tour, Furyk might find the seniors more palatable.
So that leaves Mickelson, who turns 50 in June. He won his 44th PGA Tour event less than a year ago, at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, and still strives to augment a legacy second only to Tiger Woods among those playing today. Mickelson will be eligible to make his PGA Tour Champions debut at the U.S. Senior Open at Newport Country Club in Newport, R.I., the week after the U.S. Open at Winged Foot, but it seems unlikely he’ll transition to the senior circuit any time soon, if ever.
In the meantime, the PGA Tour Champions can only work with what it has, and it sounds like it has Els, whose presence is at least capable of giving a boost to a tour that could use one.