January 19, 2009

How The Champions Tour Was Born

Thirty years ago, a single event gave rise to the senior's tour

Another champions tour season begins this week in Hawaii, but before applying their sunscreen, cracking their backs and honing their hybrids, the seniors ought to pay homage to April 29, 1979. History says the tour began in 1980, but it really started on that soggy spring day at Onion Creek CC in Austin, Texas. It was then, thanks to a six-hole, nationally televised playoff between Julius Boros-Roberto De Vicenzo and Tommy Bolt-Art Wall Jr. in Fred Raphael's Legends of Golf, that the notion of a senior tour took flight.

The inaugural Legends in 1978 had been a hit, with the singular Sam Snead teaming with Gardner Dickinson for a one-stroke victory. It was the dramatic second edition, however, that really convinced people a second act for the sport's aging champions was a good idea. The extra holes overflowed with stellar shots and counterpunches, an Old Timers' Game without the stiff gaits and soft tosses. It was a revelation to many who watched as the playoff bumped the NBC Nightly News, these candidates for the early-bird special competing as formidably as men half their age.

Wall, 55, and De Vicenzo, 56, were the young bucks of the quartet. Boros was 59. Bolt, more than two decades past his U.S. Open victory, was 63. Each of the four already had proven their longevity: the powerful De Vicenzo with scores of wins around the globe; Wall with a PGA Tour win when he was 51, second only to Snead; Boros being the oldest winner of a major, 48, when he took the 1968 PGA Championship; Bolt by seriously contending in the 1971 PGA when he was 54.

The two teams finished 54 holes at 15-under 195, and after pars on the first extra hole, they were off to the races. "It was like, 'Can you top this?' " remembers caddie Greg Rita, then 23 and working the tournament for De Vicenzo. The Argentine had been unsettled on the greens and in fact carried two putters, a mallet and a blade, but he stuck with the latter in the playoff and was deadly with it.

On the second playoff hole, he sank a 20-foot birdie to stay alive after a Wall birdie. At the next hole, the 152-yard 17th, De Vicenzo made a 10-footer for birdie only to be matched by Bolt, who had finessed a 5-iron to five feet. De Vicenzo danced a wedge to three feet for birdie on the 18th, forcing Bolt to convert from 10 feet. Returning to the 440-yard 15th hole, Bolt approached with a 5-wood to 18 feet and made birdie, but De Vicenzo again topped him, this time from 15 feet, to extend the playoff.

"People said, 'Boy, those old bastards can still play. How do we get them at our club?' " —Bob Goalby

"I remember there were maybe 4,000 or 5,000 people, a big crowd for that type of event, and they were very excited by what was happening," says De Vicenzo, 85 and the only playoff participant still alive. "So was Julius. When the putts started to drop, he was like a good jockey urging the horse to go and, like a good horse, fortunately I was able to follow the jockey's instructions."

On the sixth playoff hole Boros hit his wedge approach within five feet of the hole. De Vicenzo followed with a good shot of his own to about the same distance. Boros let his partner stroke the winning putt. "You thought we were presenting a golf telethon," NBC's Bud Collins said before interviewing the players. "But it's finally all over."

Discussions about a senior tour heated up. "The conversation started almost immediately because of the great show," says Bob Goalby, instrumental in forming the tour the following January. "People said, 'Boy, those old bastards can still play. How do we get them at our club?' "

Boros, Bolt and Snead embraced the idea, going the extra mile to woo sponsors. "Those three guys were the catalysts," Goalby says. "Sam played almost every tournament for four years, went to every draw party, put on every clinic. He did all he could do." Arnold Palmer came along presently, winning his first senior start and energizing his graying army. "I was an optimist," Goalby says. "I remember telling Art Wall, 'We're going to have a senior tour someday.' The public is going to find a place for Arnold to play.' "

Palmer carried the circuit on his strong back and other larger-than-life players followed as their birth certificates allowed. They have been joined by grinders who finally find a road map to success, all owing much to a certain Sunday three decades ago. At dinner following his triumph, Boros got so much attention a fellow patron wondered if he had won a lottery. In fact, the payouts were just beginning.

"I particularly remember that tournament for the great spirit of friendship and camaraderie," says De Vicenzo. "Of course, that could be a complete lie because there is nobody around to correct me. However, whenever I go wherever we all go, I suppose they'll be looking for the return match, so I have to be careful."