Nap Time is over. There has been a big change on the Senior tour while you were busy filling in the brackets for the office basketball pool. The tour has suddenly become interesting.
Yes, Geezerville had been a major snooze-fest for several years. Bruce Fleisher dominated 1999 with seven victories, but he hardly fired a nation's imagination. Neither did the tour's previous top attraction, the Hale Irwin-Gil Morgan rivalry that fizzled shortly after it never began. Television ratings and attendance were down, and it wasn't all Tiger Woods's fault. With apologies to the smooth-swinging Fleisher and the slap-shot-shooting Allen Doyle, the Seniors too often played a name game with which we were not familiar. Besides Fleisher and Doyle, we thrilled to Dave Eichelberger, Vicente Fernandez, Fred Gibson and Dana Quigley, guys who will be in the Hall of Fame some day...if they buy a ticket.
Now we've got the class of 2000, the tour's most significant group of newcomers since two of our favorite museum pieces, Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino, crossed golf's great divide in 1990. Tom Kite, Lanny Wadkins and Tom Watson have 74 regular Tour titles and 10 major championships among them, and just as important, they have names we recognize. "There aren't 10 golf fans in the country who don't know Kite, Wadkins and Watson," says Andy North, who turned 50 last month and fills out the foursome of marquee names.
For the most part the class of '00 had lived up to the hype. Last fall Watson won the second time he teed it up as a Senior. Wadkins strutted to victory in his Senior debut in February. Even North came through, winning a team event three weeks ago. The only thing missing was a victory by Kite, and he delivered last week, outlasting Larry Nelson and Watson in a six-hole playoff to win the Countrywide Tradition, the Senior tour's first major of the year.
If Kite seemed slow getting out of the gate, consider this: He played in 518 tournaments on the regular Tour before he won a major (the '92 U.S. Open). The Tradition was his fifth start as a Senior, and he goes to the head of the class for the way he won the playoff at the Cochise course at Desert Mountain, in Scottsdale, Ariz.
When Kite and Watson returned to play the par-3 17th hole for the third time in the playoff and the fourth time that day, Watson missed the green and Kite nearly made an ace, rolling his six-iron shot to within six inches of the cup. Watson walked onto the green, surveyed the situation and amused the crowd by observing, "I guess I know what I have to do."
Then he almost did it. His pitch shot from deep grass hit the pin but bounced out. "That son of a gun," Kite said, smiling. "If that ball's going any slower, it's in. It doesn't get any better than dueling banjos with Tom Watson."
Near aces and chip-ins belied the real story on Sunday, when every putt of more than four feet was an adventure. Kite, Nelson and Watson all had their Senior moments on the greens, and their play, while hardly the stuff of legends, added to the drama at the finish.
On the 72nd hole Kite left a 15-footer for birdie in the jaws, but four inches short. Then Nelson missed a five-footer that would have won the tournament. It got worse in the playoff. Watson, who made some ugly strokes on the back nine, botched a 10-footer for eagle on the first extra hole. "That was really a lousy putt," he said. Nelson exited the playoff on the next hole when he lipped out a five-footer for par. Watson then had another eagle try at the 18th—his third in a row there—and missed. The fourth time they played the 18th, Kite chipped long and missed a birdie putt. Watson was left with a six-footer for the win, but if it's possible to hook a putt, he did, missing terribly. That set up the return to the 17th, where Kite finished things off with a shot so close he could've kicked it in. "At least I scared him a little bit," Watson said.
All in all, though, Watson had a good week. He looked out of contention after opening with a four-over 76 but came back with a stellar 66 in the second round, when he needed only 26 putts. If Watson can putt like that this week at Augusta, he might be a factor. If he putts like he did on Sunday...well, he doesn't want to dwell on that.