The United States Golf Association, the curator of fairway history, put a doughty group of relics on display last week in presenting the first edition of the U.S. Senior Open, an event that rolled back the calendar and rekindled the competitive fires in a lot of players who used to burn up courses on a regular basis. Wrinkles may have crept into their faces after so many years and so many missed putts, and the hairlines may require a bit of rethatching, but the men at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y. still had the spirit from the days when they were young and brave and running against the wind. They may walk a bit gingerly, as if they had sand in their shoes, but the talent of a golfer, like that of a musician, weathers gracefully.
Take Roberto de Vicenzo. Through the years he has won, by his count, more than 200 titles around the world. On Sunday the 57-year-old resident of Buenos Aires triumphed again, shooting a final round of 70 that allowed him to run off and hide from the rest of the Senior Open field. His 72-hole total of 285 was four strokes ahead of amateur Bill Campbell, who came out of the pack with some late birdies. Former Masters champion Art Wall, who at 56 still has a Jr. behind his name and some magic left in his putter, wound up third, another stroke behind. De Vicenzo collected $20,000 for his efforts, an amount that would have staggered him five decades ago when he first started caddying and playing, using clubs someone had given him.
The USGA's definition of "senior" for last week's tournament was 55 years and older, as it has been for the long-standing Senior Amateur championships. The field of 150 was picked through a combination of exemptions plus sectional qualifying rounds. The names of those who teed off on Winged Foot's East Course included many the public can read on golf clubs or in record books: de Vicenzo, Wall, Julius Boros, Tommy Bolt, Charlie Sifford. Sam Snead was a last-minute withdrawal. He had hurt his back in, of all things, a driving contest. Which is the reason why, at 68, he's still known as Slammin' Sammy.
Unfortunately also, one certified senior superstar was not ready to jump on the USGA's nostalgia bandwagon. Ben Hogan was eligible for the tournament on many counts, and although his hands still sport calluses from constant work on the practice tee, Hogan no longer plays competitively—his battles with par are private affairs.
This new Senior Open, with a purse of $100,000, is only one of a growing group of tournaments devised for the game's elders. The Legends of Golf, a team event that began in 1978, has been a huge television success, and the PGA tour is planning a program of senior tournaments that may stretch to 10 next year. Arnold Palmer, now 50 and a favorite of American grandmothers everywhere, has let it be known that he will appear in a senior event in Charlotte, N.C. later this season.
Of course, age has taken its toll. Most of the gray panthers in the tournament were less concerned with winning than giving a good account of themselves. Good troupers all, they recognized the thin line between vaudeville and burlesque. Some have slowed to a creep, especially on the greens, but even in Friday's 90� heat, the stopwatch-conscious USGA stuck to its rule book and penalized two of them, Mike Fetchick and William Bergman, for slow play. And many players had to strain to follow the flight of their drives; the words most commonly heard on the tees were "Where did it go?" Beyond that, several competitors, including Bolt, were visiting chiropractors to work out the kinks in their backs. "It makes me feel great," said Ted Kroll, 60, a three-time Ryder Cup member, of such treatment, "but then I go out there and hit three shots and I'm walking around like a hunchback again." One entrant, a Canadian amateur champion named Nick Weslock, had an uncomplicated reason for limping. He plays with an artificial hip—and he made the cut.
Although some players—like Dick Metz, 72—were old enough to have appeared in the first Masters in 1934, the USGA did not retreat from its position that if the tournament is a national championship, the course should dish out more punishment than it absorbs. Winged Foot East, while a shade shorter than the club's West Course—the site of the 1929, 1959 and 1974 U.S. Opens—more than equals it in degree of difficulty. The East's devilishly contoured and elevated greens require finesse rather than strength and present challenge enough for a par of 36-35—71. De Vicenzo, for instance, missed a five-foot birdie putt on the 6th hole and left himself with a six-foot comeback. "These greens make you putt to the hole, not at it," explained Campbell, an amateur who is also a vice-president of the USGA.
The USGA decreed that the players would have to walk, that there would be no golf carts, as there are in some senior tournaments. On steamy Friday, with the sky white with pollution, many of the competitors were haggard as they trooped into the scorer's tent behind the 18th green. Said de Vicenzo, who achieved unwanted immortality by signing an incorrect scorecard in the 1968 Masters, thereby eliminating himself from a playoff: "In my country we stay in bed when the weather like this."
But while the tournament had its serious side—a lot of players were walking around with long faces after no one matched, much less broke, par in the opening round on Thursday—there was a sense of conviviality missing at most golf tournaments. It was like a class reunion. Former Masters champion Claude Harmon, for 33 years head pro at Winged Foot until he retired in 1977, was holding court again in the upstairs locker room. When Bolt said he liked the weather hot and humid, someone remembered that it was 102� when Tommy won the U.S. Open in Tulsa in 1958. And as de Vicenzo strolled through the parking lot on Saturday night, the leader by two strokes after three rounds, another competitor called out, "Good luck, Roberto." Said de Vicenzo, "See, that is the difference between now and the old days."
The night before, after two rounds, the tournament had seemed to belong to Campbell, a 57-year-old insurance broken from Huntington, W. Va. and the country's quintessential amateur—he has played in 35 U.S. Amateurs, winning once, and been on eight Walker Cup teams. That afternoon he had fired the week's first subpar round, a 68, and moved into the lead with a two-over 144, a stroke up on Wall and another ahead of Boros.