It doesn't take much to be a Legend of Golf these days. All you need is a vaguely familiar name, a bagful of titanium and a working knowledge of Burt Bacharach tunes to verify your age. It was not that way 18 years ago, when the Legends, a two-man better-ball tournament, so dazzled the world of golf that the Senior tour was born. You had to have been a somebody to play back then. Lately it has been difficult to separate the real legends from the chaff. Thank goodness Sam Snead and his gang of eightysomethings are still around to remind us what the standard ought to be.
Such specimens were in short supply last week at the Stadium Course at PGA West. Only a fourth victory by Lee Trevino and Mike Hill, who shot a final-round 63 for an 18-under-par 198, and the illustrious pairing of Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, playing together for the first time and finishing two strokes back in a three-way tie for second, kept the event from being a complete misnomer.
The unfortunate truth is that the Legends has lost its way, becoming little more than television programming and a big paycheck for guys like George Archer, Bob Murphy and Dave Stockton. It began as a jewel of an exhibition founded by Fred Raphael in Austin, in 1978, a concept so novel that it was co-opted by Deane Beman and turned into the Senior tour. But it has evolved into a charmless peculiarity that is neither an exhibition nor an official tournament. It doesn't seem to honor anyone or anything. Rather, it is one of five unofficial events on the Senior tour, 54 holes with no cut and a purse of $1.1 million. The Legends was moved to Pete Dye's spectacularly penal 6,803-yard layout at PGA West in La Quinta, Calif., a year ago, marking the triumph of the marketing types who wanted better weather and a high-profile venue instead of the tradition it had acquired in Austin, first at Onion Creek and then at Barton Creek. The tournament's amiable director, Tim Iley, is 33.
Do we really need another tournament that enriches players of arguable stature? Let's face it, there is something dissonant about putting the words legend and Jim Colbert in the same sentence. Watching Colbert, who with Murphy shot the low final round of 62 to finish sixth, dominate the Senior tour is like seeing someone step into one of those headless celebrity cardboard cutouts in a photo shop. You, too, can look like Pancho Villa or Louis XVI.
The mission of the original Legends was to give us a chance to see someone like Snead once more in competition. It was also meant as a reward to a generation of champions who built the game before the big money came along. But for any sign of the event's original intentions last week you had to look beyond the main draw to a sideshow called the Demaret Division. An assortment of national treasures 70 and over—the players the event was really meant for—competed in a 36-hole tournament for a first prize of $15,000. It was won by Art Wall, 72, and Doug Ford, 74, who despite their ages, shot 65-69 over Dye's torturous undulations.
Sadly, they were treated as an afterthought by ABC, which gave viewers a cursory glance at some inspiring visions, such as Snead, a month shy of his 84th birthday, birdieing two of the last three holes to throw a scare into the winners. "That Snead is 84, and he charging, Ford said. "I'd be amazed if he can even see how well he plays." Snead and his partner, the elegant 70-year-old E. Harvie Ward, were in contention throughout en route to their fourth-place finish at 137.
Snead concedes he doesn't see very well anymore. "I used to take one look and know just how to hit it," he said, relaxing over a rum and Coke after Saturday's 68. "Now I stand on the tee and say, 'Jeez, how far is that?' " The man who won 135 tournaments over six decades is frustrated by his physical failings and his inability to execute shots. "My wife says I don't realize how old I am," he says, laughing. Snead still plays a couple dozen times a year, although he makes his golden retriever, Meister, fetch his ball when he hits it into the woods. Among other things, he has poor circulation in his legs. "This isn't my caliber of golf," he says. "I'm ashamed of some of the shots I hit. When you play only once a month, you can't do too well. And my legs are bad. I'm all wobbly. It makes me hit it fat. I hit it fat until I could scream."
For all his frailties, there is no mistaking Snead for anything but a legend. In fact maybe it is time to reaffirm the definition. A legend has stamina and fights the erosion in his game despite his years. A legend has encyclopedic knowledge and a valuable memory. A legend provides a sense of perspective, sometimes, like Tommy Bolt, 78, in a voice bawling with wit and honesty. Bolt and Jack Fleck, the Demaret Division defending champions, shot 71-65 to tie Fred Haas and Fred Hawkins for second.
When Bolt won his U.S. Open title in 1958 at Southern Hills in Tulsa, Nicklaus was 18 and finished 41st. The runner-up was an unknown foreigner named Gary Player. "I have no memory of him at all," Bolt announced last week. Two years ago, when Bolt was the honoree at the Los Angeles Open, he met Payne Stewart for the first time. Stewart was wandering through the clubhouse in a pair of baggy shorts. Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray pointed him out to Bolt. Bolt surveyed Stewart from head to toe and then sauntered over. "I hear you're Payne Stewart's caddie," he said, snorting.
A legend has contributed something to the game. Like Jug McSpaden, 87, a 70-year member of the PGA. "Talk about a legend," Trevino says. "Now, there's a real legend." On the practice tee last Wednesday, as Trevino struck up a conversation with McSpaden, who is one of the inventors of the modern golf shoe, Chi Chi Rodriguez loitered nearby. Hearing that McSpaden had played in the 1935 Masters, Rodriguez was incredulous. "That's the year I was born," he said.