In the larger scheme of things, it probably would have been better for the Senior tour if Jack Nicklaus—or Raymond Floyd or Dave Stockton or any other player with a name folks would recognize—had won last week's $1.8 million Ford Senior Players Championship at the TPC of Michigan in Dearborn. With apologies to Hale Irwin and Dr. Gil, this year the geezers' circuit began to run a serious charisma deficit the minute Johnny Miller, who turned 50 on April 29, decided that he preferred the tower at 18 to playing the tour.
On the other hand Larry Gilbert's three-shot win in the fourth and final Senior major of the season could be viewed as a victory for the underdogs and the dreamers, and especially for all the club pros who keep the game humming by devoting their lives to curing Mr. Smith's incurable slice. They are Gilbert's kind of people.
Gilbert turned pro in 1967 but played the regular Tour only one year, 1972, earning $1,633. He gave the Tour up because his son, Allen, then a year old, suffered from allergies. "He was allergic to dust, mold, mildew," says Gilbert, "and when you stay in third-rate motels, what do you sleep in?" So he took his family back to Kentucky, where he was content to be a club pro until he became eligible for the Senior tour, in 1993. Everybody knew that he could play—you don't win three National Club Pro Championships, as Gilbert did in 1981, '82 and '91, unless you've got some game—but could he compete against the best of his generation? Gilbert believed in himself enough to take the $4,000 in the family bank account and gamble that he could. So far he has parlayed that four grand into more than $3 million.
Last week Gilbert played superbly in the first two rounds, shooting 67 and 68 to take the lead at the halfway point. He faltered on Saturday with an even-par 72 but remained in a four-way tie for the lead. "After the way I hit it," Gilbert said at the end of the tournament, looking back on his Saturday performance, "I wouldn't have given a plugged nickel for my chances on Sunday."
But on the range before the final round Gilbert and his caddie, Ned McAfee, a former club pro, detected an alignment problem. Gilbert made an adjustment, then birdied four of the first seven holes to become the man to beat. Then, on the back nine, he played steady golf while the others fell apart trying to catch him. Not that anyone noticed until the very end. The galleries flocked mainly to Nicklaus.
By finishing eight under on a course that he had designed, Nicklaus convinced himself, after Hamlet-like soul-searching, that he is playing well enough to tee it up in this week's British Open at Royal Troon. In addition, the mere fact that he was in the hunt, along with Floyd, Stockton, Lee Trevino and other icons, assured that the Ford Players was the Cadillac of this year's Senior majors.
The Tradition? Gil Morgan, a rookie, won it by six. The PGA Seniors? Irwin in a 12-stroke walk. The U.S. Senior Open? It was competitive but evolved into a final-round duel between Graham Marsh and John Bland, a couple of foreigners with low Q ratings. Marsh won, but the atmosphere was Bland, as have been the television ratings for the Senior tour all season. Not one event has drawn a higher rating this year than last, and viewership is down more than 20% across the board.
Do we have a problem here? Not according to Irwin. "I don't think the Senior tour has gotten bland," he says. "Competition will help any tournament, but the winner doesn't want to go down to the last hole. I'm sure Gil didn't mind winning by a big margin, and I didn't mind. As for the Open, I thought it was exciting. I don't look at it like, if you're not making birdies, you're not playing good golf. It's the competition and how the players react to it—that's what's exciting."
Yes, but the Senior tour hasn't produced a personality to match the excitement generated by the LPGA's Annika Sorenstam or by Tiger Woods on the regular Tour. Miller could have helped, but he won't make his Senior debut until the Franklin Quest Championship later this month in Park City, Utah. Miller, who went to school at BYU, says he waited so that he could give the Park City event a boost, and because of his busy schedule with NBC he also needed some time to get his game in shape. Miller acknowledges that as the big-name players fade from the scene, the younger Seniors will have to work hard to maintain the public's interest. "There's a core group that transcends performance," Miller says. "The bottom line is like Frank Sinatra. He may not sing well anymore, but you want to see how he's doing. Then, as the young guns like myself, Larry Nelson and the others come in, we'll smile and yuk it up a bit. I've learned that there's entertainment value that goes with golf. I see the game from a whole different perspective."
Tour commissioner Tim Finchem stopped in Dearborn last week, partly to allay concerns that the Senior tour is slipping. Pointing out that stars such as Tom Kite, Lanny Wadkins and Tom Watson will become eligible for Senior play in 1999, Finchem predicted that "the best years of the Senior tour are ahead."