I've never been fond of cigars, and my disdain predates their ludicrous ascension into the accessory of choice among poseurs. I spent my college summers working at the pro shop at Pebble Beach Golf Links, and one of the untidy tasks that came with the job was cleaning out the golf carts. The cigar smokers were the worst. They would dispose of the vile aftermath of their foul indulgence in any of the cart's available orifices, and I was left to deal with their filth. To this day the stench of cigars induces in me a gag reflex.
I bring up this bit of personal history only because it relates to what is a dark anniversary for golf. A year ago last week Larry Gilbert (right) won the Senior Players Championship in the most triumphant moment of a career spent on the fringes of the pro tours. Walking off the last green, he received hearty congratulations from Jack Nicklaus, a turn of events so improbable that it brought tears to Gilbert's eyes. "That's a moment I'll treasure for as long as I live," Gilbert said. No one knew that that would be only 192 more days.
Even as Gilbert was accepting the championship trophy, his lungs were being ravaged by a virulent cancer, the legacy of a lifetime of smoking—first cigarettes and then for his last five years cigars, which so commonly blight the landscape of the Senior tour. (Players on the PGA Tour are either more health conscious or more politically correct because cigars are as rare as personality there.) Certainly no one forced Gilbert to puff his life away, but his nasty habit was facilitated by the permissive atmosphere on the Senior tour. Not only do many players smoke stogies during tournament rounds, but a number of them also shill for cigar manufacturers, as Gilbert did.
One company features in its ads the smiling foursome of Larry Laoretti, Walter Morgan, Dana Quigley and Tom Wargo, the Hogan, Nelson, Sarazen and Snead of golf's cigar smokers. Laoretti, especially, has helped make cigars cool. His storybook victory in the 1992 U.S. Senior Open came under a great cloud of smoke, and his rakish cigar as much as his game captured the imagination of the public. Thus emboldened, Laoretti has since spewed such nonsense as encouraging golfers to smoke cigars because, when clenched between your teeth, they help keep your head still during the swing.
I hate to come off as the fun police, Miss Manners or C. Everett Coop, but there is something unkosher about this coupling of professional golf and cigars. For starters, it undermines the credibility of the sport. I don't recall cigar enthusiast Michael Jordan ever lighting up on the fast break. More disturbing is that the Senior tour and its corporate big brother, the PGA Tour, blow a lot of smoke about charity and public service, much of which involves health issues. With so many Seniors battling various forms of cancer in recent years, it's galling that the Tour condones the smoking of cancer sticks during its competitions. (By now anyone who thinks cigars are harmless probably also refuses to acknowledge that technology has changed the game.)
It's time to ban the smoking of cigars during tournament play, and while we're at it, lets outlaw cigarettes as well. Though they're used more discreetly than cigars, cigarettes are no less pernicious.
Gilbert would undoubtedly approve. On the day he got his death sentence from his doctor, he quit smoking, and over the last six months of his life he tried to persuade many of his colleagues to do the same. (They all find religion in the end, don't they? Remember John Wayne wheezing through those antismoking ads shortly before his death, which was, of course, hastened by a lifetime of smoking?) As long as smoking cigars is both socially acceptable and financially rewarding, Senior players will continue to puff away. The Tour needs to step in. Right now its players are sending an unhealthy message and, worse, making a mockery of the memory of Larry Gilbert.