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Built to Last
Walter Bingham
February 16, 1998
The Senior tour's first unsung star, Don January, now 68, soldiers on
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February 16, 1998

Built To Last

The Senior tour's first unsung star, Don January, now 68, soldiers on

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At the Casey Martin trial in Oregon last week, Richard Ferris, the chairman of the PGA Tour's policy board, set off a bombshell in the ranks of the old guard when he tried to explain why carts are allowed on the Senior tour. "The Senior tour is not competition at its highest level," he said. "The Senior tour is nostalgia."

It didn't take long for Arnold Palmer, leading the charge, to respond. "I don't think there's anything nostalgic about it," Arnie said. "It's a tour, just like any other tour. It's very competitive."

The simple truth is, the Senior tour is about both nostalgia and competition. One of the attractions of a senior golf tournament is that it provides galleries with what is often a dramatic finish on Sunday afternoon—the 10-hole sudden-death playoff between David Graham and Dave Stockton two weeks ago, for instance—and an encore, an opportunity to cheer yesterday's heroes. See Arnie and remember Cherry Hills, Jack and all those green jackets, Lee and his rubber snake at Merion.

Competing at the LG Championship in Naples, Fla., last week was an aging warrior who evoked a different sort of nostalgia, one for the early days of the Senior tour almost two decades ago. Don January, the 1967 PGA champion, was the Hale Irwin of his day, an uncharismatic player dominating the over-the-hill gang. January is the answer to the trivia question, Who won the first official Senior tour event, the Atlantic City International in 1980? During the first five years of the tour January always finished either first or second on the money list, and his 22 Senior victories put him in a tie for fourth on the alltime list.

January is one of just three active players—Charlie Sifford and Palmer are the others—to have been born in the Roaring Twenties. But whereas Arnie's appearances on the tour are largely ceremonial these days, January is still a force, especially among the MasterCard Champions, the players 60 and over. He has won 35 of the SuperSenior events, those 36-hole tournaments within the regular tournament, nearly twice as many victories as any other active player.

Last Friday and Saturday at Naples, January put together even-par rounds of 72 that had him a stroke ahead of Irwin and Dave Stockton, four better than Graham, who had won the week before, and 15 ahead of Palmer. On Sunday, January slipped to a 78, but even so, he finished in the middle of the field.

Superficially, at least, he resembled the same old January as he strolled slowly down the fairways, his face wrinkled by the sun from a lifetime of golf, looking not unlike a gunslinger from an old Western. Alas, he is no longer one-iron thin.

"I was always skinny and smoked," he says. "Smoking always blunted my appetite. I could drink and smoke as much as I wanted because I always stayed the same weight. Then they made me stop smoking and drinking, and I gained 50 pounds the first three months. My wife told me that my grandkids are going to wonder why I have the nickname Slim. That's what they call me back home in Dallas."

January does not intend to go on forever, and in fact once quit the regular Tour. In 1972 he tossed his clubs into a closet and embarked on a career in golf course construction. "I had no intention of coming back," he says. "Then came the recession of '74. Nobody had any work, and I had kids to put through college, so the next year I returned. I laugh at the things I said when I was a young man about how long I was going to play. I was in a bar with someone I used to travel with, and at another table was a guy who'd been on the Tour 14 or 15 years. I said, 'That's never going to happen to me. I'll be out here nine years tops and then I'm gone.' Hell, that was 40 years ago."

As he left the scorer's tent after his second round last week, a group of youngsters asked him for his autograph. Afterward, he laughed. "They didn't know who the hell I was," he said. "Maybe their fathers do. I'm just a damned old pro from Dallas, Texas, who was lucky enough to have a swing that lasted for a while. That's what I am."

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