Maybe it was the subliminal force of his name, but while watching John Bland contend for another Senior tour title recently, I was struck by how little I cared whether the victory went to the amiable South African or to some less aptly christened player. The realization gave me pause because I've always been a fan of golf's 50-and-over league. I've looked upon it as a kind of living hall of fame, where remnants of distinctive styles, competitive genius and old rivalries are preserved. But one too many sightings of Bland—and perhaps one too many blandishments from ESPN announcer Jim Kelly—and suddenly none of it worked anymore.
Although such a visceral response was admittedly unfair, it was rooted in the basic supposition on which the Senior tour was founded: The stars—more than in any other arena in golf—are the show. The tour, which was started essentially so Arnold Palmer could charge again and has thrived as Raymond Floyd, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Lee Trevino have knocked heads, is less relevant as the roles of those alltime greats have diminished. The cold fact is that their replacements don't provide the same magic.
It's not so much that Jim Colbert, Bob Murphy, Dave Stockton and a certain Mr. Bland are winning so many tournaments. The Senior tour has always had its highly successful complementary players, from Miller Barber and Don January to Bob Charles and Mike Hill. But until recently the supporting cast has never been better than the headliners.
The 56-year-old Nicklaus, though he has won twice this year, is more prone to ordinary performances and has been 22nd, 16th, 24th and 12th, respectively, in his last four Senior appearances. Player has been second four times, but at 60 he competes with the fatalism and good cheer of a man who is content to be competitive. Trevino's surgically battered body is on the verge of wearing out, and at 56 he admits he no longer feels dominant. Floyd, who has the most explosive game of any of the Seniors, has played fitfully this year, his famed stare inexplicably absent.
The tour's new elite is a less talented, less charismatic but more motivated breed. Other than Hale Irwin, whose three U.S. Open titles make him a near legend but whose playing style seldom excites, most are players who left the regular Tour dissatisfied with their accomplishments. Given a second chance, they have refined or even rebuilt their swings, improved their physiques and fine-tuned their attitudes. Colbert, Murphy and Stockton in particular are playing the best golf of their lives and intend to keep improving.
Still, watching a highly motivated group of grinders and overachievers get richer doesn't make for high drama. Currently, the most urgent issue on the Senior tour is the race between Colbert and Irwin for the money title and player of the year honors. Irwin is obviously irked by Colbert, who loves to talk about winning the year-end awards. Irwin, just as competitive but trying to downplay his killer instinct, let his feelings show two weeks ago when Colbert edged him in the Vantage Championship. "Jim makes a lot of things important," Irwin said before mimicking Colbert's trademark "hang loose" hand waggle, which has replaced Harold Henning's fey wave as the most annoying celebratory gesture in golf.
As for the future, the collective marquee value of the top Senior players will almost certainly get worse before it gets better. Two weeks ago organizers at the Vantage spent a lot of time hyping the Senior debut of Gil Morgan, and he came through in a hurry, winning his second start, last week's Ralphs Senior Classic. Morgan was a seven-time winner on the PGA Tour, but seemingly spent his 23 years there focused on perfecting a state of anonymity. Until Tom Watson turns 50 in September 1999, the biggest names that will hit the tour are Johnny Miller and Gary McCord, both of whom are popular television commentators but unlikely to be dominant players—Miller because of bad knees, McCord because of limited ability. In that same span, it's unlikely that the once prevalent notion that the Senior tour will someday eclipse the regular Tour in popularity will get much airtime.
There's no crisis in the offing—sponsors are lined up for a place on the schedule—and the Senior tour remains one of the best ideas in the history of sports. But that's about all it is. Without the greatest names in the game playing a vital role, that doesn't mean very much.