The beautiful weirdness of golf's senior tours
Golf is not the only professional sport that features official contests among players “of a certain age,” by which I mean those who have passed their competitive prime and entered the autumn of their years. If you’re a tennis fan, you can watch John McEnroe play in barnstorming exhibitions, and you can see similar matches between former stars at some of the grand slams. The New York Yankees famously have Old-Timers’ Day, which has been duplicated by a few other major league baseball teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers and Boston Red Sox. And … well, after that, the well of examples runs a bit dry.
Despite this debatable company, though, golf is the only sport that takes competition among older players seriously. The PGA Tour Champions, founded in 1980 as the Senior PGA Tour, features golfers 50 and older playing a full January-through-November schedule with major championships (five of them!), a money list and playoffs. The European Senior Tour was founded in 1992 and features 21 events (some of them co-sanctioned with the PGA Tour Champions) and a two-tournament championship. Besides the fact that the non-major tournaments are 54 holes rather than 72, and players are mostly allowed to use carts, the format is essentially the same as the “real” tours.
These senior tours don’t enjoy the same status as other professional tours, but the impressive thing is that they enjoy status at all—and that the status is significant. It can be measured, in part, by money: The winners of PGA Tour Champions events make up to $720,000 (that was Steve Stricker’s take at this year’s U.S. Senior Open), and never less than $240,000. Already in 2019, nine players have made more than $1 million. For the entire season, the total purses almost reach $60 million. Those numbers don’t exist in a vacuum—it means that people want to come watch older golfers in person, and, more important, they will watch them on TV, too.
It’s tough to calculate the exact value of the PGA Tour Champions, because it comes as a TV package with the PGA Tour (and the Korn Ferry Tour), and to some extent it might be subsidized by its more popular partner. But it’s also fair to say that it wouldn’t offer more prize money than the Asian or Japanese tours if it didn’t have a fair amount of popular clout.
Anecdotally, you can also measure the status of golf’s senior tours by coverage. It would be impossible to imagine reading pieces like John Feinstein’s essay on Tom Watson’s farewell to the Senior Open Championship, or John Strege’s coverage of Bernhard Langer winning the same tournament at age 62, in any other sport—just as it would be laughable to think of another sport that could round up $60 million for a league of old men.
This status, it’s fair to say, is extremely strange. So why does it exist? How is it financially feasible? What’s different about golf?
Partly, it’s because golf is more a sport of coordination than pure athleticism, which means there isn’t an enormous gap between younger and older players. Yes, no golfer older than 50 has ever won a major (though Tom Watson came agonizingly close on the threshold of 60 at the 2009 Open Championship), and only three have ever won a PGA Tour event, but the fact is that the brand of golf that the seniors are playing is still extremely good, especially when you consider it in relation to how a 50-year-old football or baseball player might perform. To win the Senior Open this past weekend, Bernard Langer shot a 66, which is far lower than any average schlub could dream of shooting. So when you watch the seniors play, you’re still watching a very high level of golf. In contrast, by the time most former professional basketball players hit age 60, your reasonably skilled high school player could beat them in a game of one-on-one. In most other sports, there’s an enormous athletic drop-off that doesn’t exist to the same degree in golf.
That’s clearly the most prominent factor. But, risking a digression into hokum, I’d argue that the spiritual side of golf also plays a key role. In the United States, particularly, golf thrives on nostalgia more than any other sport, including baseball. Sometimes this takes the form of a retrograde conservatism that damages golf’s reputation and leaves it woefully behind the societal curve, but other times it’s a more wholesome celebration of the past. Or maybe “celebration” isn’t quite the right word—maybe “yearning” is more accurate. Embedded within golf are subconscious desires to return to a simpler mode in terms of culture and nature.
Kris Kristofferson once wrote, “I’d trade all my tomorrows for one single yesterday,” and senior tours give golf fans a chance to experience yesterday today. They’re a portal to the past, where viewers can watch the golf stars of their youth still competing, and still competing with professional excellence. Watching them shields us, temporarily, from the impermanence of life and allows us to believe that the old ways aren’t dying. It lets us escape our fundamental dread of the future, and although this has potential appeal for everyone, you can imagine it appealing especially to an older audience—a demographic, you’d have to guess, which makes up the vast majority of television viewers.
Of course, we know this is an illusion: Life is not permanent, things are constantly changing, and nothing we do can stop time. But, I’d argue, golf’s senior tours, anomalous as they are in the world of professional sports, have a kind of beautiful nobility for the attempt.
Let me throw one final quote at you. This one comes from Satchel Paige and was borrowed, in part, by D.A. Pennebaker for his seminal documentary on Bob Dylan:
“Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”
Well, something is gaining on us, but the senior tours look back anyway. That takes a special kind of nerve, and it’s only possible in golf.