Twilight, that uncertain time when the cheering stops and the real world begins, never has stolen upon Miller Barber. Recently, when ol' Miller and ol' Arnie were engaged in a hot and furious fairway battle—a goodly number of which Barber has been winning lately—the exasperated Palmer turned to his potbellied, bespectacled rival and said crossly, "I'm getting awfully tired of not being able to beat you." Barber chuckled and said, "Now you know how I used to feel."
That's what the PGA Senior Tour is selling—nostalgia. The old days are gone, but the memories linger. How marvelous to say, "Play it again, Sam...and Arnie and Miller and Don! You played it for them, and now you can play it for us." From Snead to Palmer, Barber to January, play it again, guys, the way no one plays it anymore.
It's a colorful, eclectic bunch of over-50 grayheads—or baldheads—out there on the back-brace-and-Ace-bandage circuit, staging an oldtimers' game in which the score still matters. Miller Barber's got the torch now. He's the best. X, as his friends call him—or the "Mysterious Mr. X," to use his full name—is simply tearing them up and adding to his image as a genuine locker-room folk hero. To know him is to love him. Those dark shades, that fat, chunky body, the soft, nasal, east Texas voice that squeaks and, trademark of trademarks, the worst-looking golf swing ever to come down the pike. "Kinda like the saltwater taffy machine at the fair," says his buddy Buck Adams, a North Carolina teaching pro.
X is out there, flying right elbow and all, jista collectin' all this-a-here money and all those titles, having a great time playing the game he loves, the game that gave him something he always wanted—a home.
What a crew he's with, still together after all these years! There's Palmer, ever fearless, hitching up his pants and going for the impossible. And Billy Casper, the best golfer no one remembers, with 51 tour victories and a 15-year span during which he finished among the Top 10 money-winners 14 times, now fat and happy, parading the fairways in electric-blue plus fours and fuchsia shirts, calling attention to himself. Doug Sanders has even dusted off his racy rainbow outfits and resurrected his phone-booth swing. Snead, now 74, with failing eyesight and a tinge of arthritis, plays rarely but he still collects on bets when he jumps and kicks the tops of doors. January, slow-movin', slow-talkin', a walking change of pace, is ambling his way to more money than he ever knew existed.
Golf's oldies but goldies are playing for an incredible $5,131,000 in prize money in 1984, 25 tournaments, with more on the way. It isn't the big leagues, but the bleachers are up around the 18th hole, and when Sunday comes, the heat is on once again.
Part of the appeal of the senior tour is the age of the players. It has accentuated their individualities. Even no-color is appreciated. The bland, repetitive, synchronized swing and nature of Gene Littler now stick out and are applauded in a way they never were 20 years ago. There's something else: These guys can still play. And, says Jack Barry, who used to direct the senior event at Shipyard Plantation on Hilton Head Island, S.C., "This could be the last crop of guys who played the game for fun." In the '60s, Jack Nicklaus came along with his yardage book, the prize money went through the roof, and it became a game of precision and meticulousness, a sport for bookkeepers. And in the '70s all those lookalike college blonds showed up with their golfing-ma-chine swings and there was no fun to be found anywhere.
Today, for players like Orville Moody, who until recently eked out a living as a club manager, pro and greenkeeper in Sulphur Springs, Texas, the senior tour is salvation. "I'm gonna try to fill my money sack this year," says Moody, the winner of two events and $126,587 thus far in '84, his first year as a senior. Moody came to pro golf at 33, when he was mustered out of the Army. Now, at 50, he's young for the first time. "He's our candidate for Rookie of the Year," says Tom Place, the PGA's director of information.
At this year's Legends of Golf tournament in Austin, the place where the senior golf phenomenon took hold in 1978, 120,000 fans turned out. Hundreds ringed the practice green to watch their enduring heroes up close, held back by a rope on which one or more back braces were hung. At one tournament Palmer shot for the pin from 180 yards and then walked up to the green to discover that poor eyesight had deceived him: The pin turned out to be a sand-trap rake. Then he four-putted. And in the locker room, sitting with his feet up and nursing a beer, looking more ursine every day, was Julius Boros. Ol' Julie, who had a quintuple bypass three years ago, was watching television, a women's golf tournament. He'd finished his playing for the day, and it was time to watch. Golf. That's what keeps these guys going.
Even the caddies are into it. Creamy Carolan is back with Palmer, just like he was in the '60s when Arnie was coming out of the trees to make birdies. Carolan is 69 now, and in his wallet he carries a picture of himself as a serviceman at Guadalcanal in 1942, a faded black-and-white snapshot of the way he was.