Genesis Scottish Open

The Renaissance Club



U.S. Senior Open

It's a fair question: What keeps pros over 60 staying with the grind on senior circuit?

June 24, 2024

Many players on PGA Tour Champions don’t need the money and, Lord knows, they certainly don’t need the aggravation, the countless reminders—higher scores, more fragile bodies (as well as egos?)—that their best days in a profession they chose long ago are long behind them.

Besides, let’s face it, life on the road (sorry, Jack Kerouac) can be far from romantic. Ask Michael Allen, 65, an eight-time tour winner on the 50-and-older circuit.

A few months ago, on the evening prior to the first round of the Galleri Classic in Rancho Mirage, Calif., Allen and his wife, Cynthia, were planning to celebrate their 33rd wedding anniversary with a meal at a nice restaurant in town. They had to change plans, however, when Cynthia’s plane arrived a few hours late.

“We went to In-N-Out,” Allen said.

Happy Anniversary, honey. Are you going to eat all those fries?

Or ask Mark O’Meara, 67, a two-time PGA Tour major champion who tied for 57th in March at the Hoag Classic in Newport Beach, earning a grand total of $3,800. Factor in the $3,500 he spent paying for his caddie, transportation, lodging and meals and … well, you get the picture.

“I said to somebody, ‘I’d rather stay home, buy my wife a nice purse or a pair of shoes and I’m a winner,’” O’Meara said. “I’m not necessarily a winner out here.”

Not many players are, especially those in their 60s. Which, on the eve of the biggest tournament of the year, the U.S. Senior Open at Newport Country Club in Rhode Island, that prompts the question, posed to O’Meara and about a dozen others in recent months:

With all due respect, what the heck are you still doing out here?

“That’s a great question,” O’Meara replied. “I ask myself that all the time.”

There is no single answer, but the first thing they came up over and over is that they still love to compete, or as Jerry Kelly, who has made a killing on the senior tour with 11 wins and nearly $13 million earned, put it, “beat each other’s brains out.”

​“I can’t think of anything I would rather do than win a golf tournament,” said Kirk Triplett, 62, who has won eight times since turning the big Five-0h in 2012, but not once since 2019. “I’m trying to solve the puzzle. Still.”

Which is what led Rocco Mediate, 61, to give the tour another shot this year after seriously considering quitting in 2023 when he registered just one top-10 finish in 21 appearances. “You can be hitting it bad on the range,” Mediate said, “but when the bell rings, the whole ballgame changes. You get on the first tee and go, ‘I can do this.’

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Jerry Kelly has won 11 times on the senior circuit.

Ben Jared

His wife, Jessica, however, knows her husband very well. She didn’t buy the retirement talk for one second. “They have done this their whole lives,” she said. “They really don’t know how to do anything else. They would be happy dying out here because they love it so much.” (Mediate finally came clean: “We’re all nuts.”)

“I guess I’m kind of like a trained seal. It’s what I know how to do best … I’m terrible at giving up. If there is a mountain in front of me, I just figure I can climb it.”
SCOTT VERPLANK

Or, as Scott Verplank, who will turn 60 next month, explained: “I guess I’m kind of like a trained seal. It’s what I know how to do best … I’m terrible at giving up. If there is a mountain in front of me, I just figure I can climb it.”

One wonders, though, if there are other matters that figure into their thinking, whether they are aware of them or not. Like one’s own mortality.

​“Father Time is ticking away,” said Paul Stankowski, a youngster at 54. When he was started out, “I thought it was going to last forever. Now I know it’s not.” He was referring to his life on tour, although he could have easily been referring to life itself. Yet, to borrow a baseball expression, hope springs eternal. ​

“My body doesn’t feel 64,” Tom Pernice Jr. said. “My mind is good and ready to go.”

​A lot of guys claim they are close to solving the puzzle. To winning again. When told how many others feel “close,” O’Meara didn’t miss a beat.

​“I am not close,” he said.

O’Meara, who has only three wins on the Champions, with the last coming in 2019, said he is considering bowing out this fall with the tournament at Pebble Beach. Fitting, for the man who has won five times as a pro at Pebble, as well as the 1979 U.S. Amateur. O’Meara said he admired Nick Price, the three-time major winner, who knew when it was time to go.

​“I don’t need to go out there and shoot 75,” O’Meara said. “What purpose does that serve?”

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Jeff Sluman says he does not want to get "the letter" that basically eliminates players whose scoring average becomes too high.

NurPhoto

Jeff Sluman, the 1988 PGA Championship winner, can relate. Sluman, who will turn 67 in September, said he thinks this will be his final year of playing a full schedule. He said he doesn’t want to receive “the letter.”

​The letter?

​“You shoot 80 every day,” Sluman explained, “and it’s over anyway because you get”—he paused for effect, like an experienced actor—“the letter.”

​A PGA Tour spokesman indicated that no one from the headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach would be available to comment about the letter, although the eligibility requirements emailed to Golf Digest point out that “any player who has played a minimum of six official rounds and played in a minimum of three tournaments shall have maintained a scoring average for all rounds played … during the previous year … no higher than 4 1/2 strokes in excess of the average score for all players in such tournaments.”

If a player doesn’t meet that threshold, he “shall no longer be exempt.” Last season, the tour scoring average was 71.85. So the cutoff for possibly receiving the letter would be 76.35.

To be safe from ever receiving the letter, a player must have 30 combined wins on the regular and senior tours, hold at least one major title and be in the Hall of Fame. Of the current players, only two men own those feats: Bernhard Langer and Vijay Singh.

No wonder guys are so intent on avoiding this particular piece of correspondence. Even so, many see nothing wrong with they’re being a letter in the first place.

“Otherwise,” said Jay Haas, 70, who plays rarely these days, “you would have guys out here until they were 80. Scoring average has always been a barometer of whether you can contend or not.”

“If they’re in the back of the field, so what? They’re Hall of Famers. They set the path for us.”
JOHN COOK

As Allen put it: “At a certain point, you have to let the [younger] guys play.”

Not everyone, though, is on board with the purpose of the letter.

“If they’re in the back of the field, so what?” asked John Cook, 66, who retired in 2023. “They’re Hall of Famers. They set the path for us.”

​The back of the field is where a lot of the sixtysomethings find themselves come Sunday morning, teeing off on the 10th hole instead of the first. “We jokingly refer to it,” Sluman said, as “correct tee time, wrong tee.” Wrong tee, perhaps, but, to a man, they say it’s important not to have the wrong approach.

​“Yes, it sucks,” Corey Pavin, 64, admitted, “but there’s next week and the week after that. Maybe something will click.”

Pavin, best known for his superb 4-wood shot on the 72nd hole that helped him secure the 1995 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, has had a rather challenging go of it among the seniors—he has just one victory and a combined 14 seconds and thirds in 255 starts.

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David Toms says he'll never complain about the money players are making on PGA Tour Champions.

Christian Petersen

​David Toms, who won the 2001 PGA at Atlanta Athletic Club, is thoroughly enjoying himself in his second career. For the first time in many years, his wife has been going on the road with him. He was bored at home. He is challenged out here.

​When Toms, 57, captured the 2018 U.S. Senior Open at The Broadmoor in Colorado, he said it felt like a victory on the regular tour. “I will never complain about what we’re able to do out here,” Toms said. “Some guys say, ‘Oh, well, we need bigger purses,' but for us this is a bonus.”

​One of those guys is Chris DiMarco, who finished second in the 2004 PGA, the 2005 Masters, and the 2006 British Open. In March, DiMarco said he hoped that LIV Golf would buy the tour so players could compete “for a little money out here. I mean this is kind of a joke when we’re getting $2 million. There were seven guys at [the Players Championship] that made more money than our purses.”

​When told of those comments, one former player responded: “What we need right now is not greed, OK? That’s the worst thing we could be talking about.”

​On this particular day in the California desert, what Sluman needed was to fix the shaft on his driver. He toyed with it for what seemed like hours. The following day, he shot a two-under 70. He was satisfied.

​“I could have shot a pretty low round today,” he said after missing a handful of short putts. (He’d wind up finishing the week in the Galleri tied for 17th.)

​Yes, some scores in recent years have not been pretty, but, Sluman sounds more like 26 than 66. “I still love doing this,” he said.