It was August 1982. I was 20 years old and lived in Lake County at a time when Hamburger Hill was being built, there was no traffic light anywhere in our area, and you could choose one of four television channels from the antennas on it Mount Konocti. My younger brother was just getting started in the radio business and I decided to visit him in his new hometown of Scotts Bluff, Nebraska.
I was playing in Western Nebraska Amateur that weekend in nearby Gering, Nebraska. I also did a 200 mile road trip to Denver earlier this week. I decided to spend a day at the Denver Post Champions of Golf Tournament at Pinehurst Country Club. It was one of 11 golf tournaments this year on the Young Senior PGA Tour for golf professionals aged 50 and over. Looking back at those early days of senior golf, one can immediately surmise that the senior course these days wasn’t the well-oiled machine the PGA’s Champions Tour is today, with its multi-million dollar purses spread out over 26 minutes of events.
The total cash for all 11 senior tournaments in 1982 was $ 1.6 million. The schedule was very scattered. They played once in April, twice in June, once in July, three times in August, once in September, twice in October and once in December. The three August events required some skill in traveling nationwide as the senior kit went from Denver to Syracuse to Salt Lake City. The United States Senior Open was also only in its third year of existence and its total prize pool was $ 150,000. The winner, Miller Barber, pocketed $ 25,000. The money paid out for senior golf was comparable to what the 1967 PGA Tour was giving away about 15 years earlier. But for most of the older competitors, it was a career-changing mulligan. They couldn’t compete against the likes of Tom Watson and Seve Ballesteros on the regular tour, but they did let fans go back in time while playing for a lot more money than was available to them about 25 years earlier at the end of the 1950s .
Since the Seniors Tour didn’t have a lucrative television deal or large corporate donors like Charles Schwab, they developed a unique way to raise money for their tournament wallets. Typically around 40 senior pros played at these events, but the pairings were in competitive pro-am formats in three of the four rounds. You would see a Hall of Fame golfer like Arnold Palmer or Billy Casper with three amateurs. The amateurs paid big bucks for the privilege of playing with the senior’s greats, and the tournament committee was able to use the Pro-Am earnings to offer purses close to $ 150,000. After completing 11 Senior PGA Tour events in December, Barber was the track’s top cash winner with three tournament titles and $ 106,890 in credit.
Of course, the senior tour grew due to the star power. The Denver tournament that week in 1982 was won by Arnold Palmer. Casper won twice that year, as did Don January and Arnie. Bob Goalby won a tournament and so did Dan Sikes. The seniors would be joined in the next few years by players like Lee Trevino, Jack Nicklaus, Chi Chi Rodriquez and others who would sell the value of senior tour golf. Senior golf was fun and would be lucrative.
Last weekend, the third annual US Women’s Senior Open was held at the Brooklawn Country Club in Fairfield, Connecticut. Brooklawn is an ancient AW Tillinghast (Baltusrol, Winged Foot, San Francisco) that first opened in 1895. Jerilyn Britz won the US Women’s Open there in 1979 and Gary Player won the US Senior Open in Brooklawn in 1987.
While there wasn’t much drama in the women’s senior last week, as evidenced by Annika Sorenstam’s eight-stroke win, it was great to take another stroll back in time at classic women’s golf. Sorenstam was in many ways the Arnold Palmer of the LPGA Tour from the 1980s to the turn of the century. She won 72 tournaments on the LPGA Tour and 10 of those victories were major championships. Sorenstam “withdrew” from women’s golf in 2008 to start a family. One of the incentives for their return to competitive golf was to allow their children to see their mother from the perspective of a former golfer. To make it a family affair, Annika’s husband, Mike McGee, served as her caddy as the recently 50-year-old went wild on her first senior golf triumph.
But while the Senior PGA Tour has grown by leaps and bounds since the days of the third annual US Senior Open in 1982, I don’t think any future Senior LPGA Tour will ever be able to do so. Part of the problem is marketing and TV and money ratings, but more importantly, today’s female golfers don’t have the same “wow factor” that Palmer, Casper and the rest of the seniors did almost 40 years ago. The US Senior Women’s field included well-known players such as Laura Davies, the winner of the first Senior Women’s 2018, this year’s runner-up Liselotte Neumann, Juli Inkster and the European Solheim Cup captain Catriona Matthew. There isn’t much branding depth in the senior citizen space, however.
Additionally, Sorenstam, who could most likely be wearing an LPGA Senior Circuit like Arnold Palmer did for the PGA Seniors in the early 1980s, was particularly evasive about how much more competitive she wanted to play golf. She wouldn’t even make a commitment to returning to the Women’s Senior at the NCR Country Club in Ohio next year to defend her title. She seems to enjoy family life, she doesn’t really need the money, and currently there are only four senior LPGA tournaments on the calendar for 2021.
So I’d love to spend my money watching the aforementioned greats of senior golf alongside others like Trish Johnson, Helen Alfredsson, Rosie Jones, Michelle Redman, and Michelle McGann. among other things, I believe that I am in the minority. The Golf Channel and major networks won’t be spending much money on senior golf, and interest is likely to be limited, even among the most hardcore fans of the game who might as well watch the Korn Ferry Tour from Farmington, Utah. All of that is too bad. Last week’s US Women’s Senior Open was really a great walk back in time, and while Annika took the drama away from the festivities, there is no doubt that great golf was being played.