Golf: Hitting gold after 50

Okay, it’s a hoary cliché, the one that says life begins at 50. But looking at the Senior PGA Tour, it’s hard to believe this isn’t true. It usually begins at 50 for golfers who had only modest success before. Some include:

  • Bruce Fleisher
  • Here’s a golfer who won once in 408 events, and $1.7 million on the regular PGA Tour-the one Lee Trevino calls the “flatbellies” tour. Yet Fleisher, now 52, has won 14 times and $6.5 million on the Senior PGA Tour. Recently he captured his first major, the U.S. Senior Open. Go figure.

  • Allan Doyle
    The Rhode Island native still runs a driving range in La Grange, Georgia, where he earned most of his living before he hit the mother lode on the senior circuit. Doyle, 53, didn’t turn pro until 1995, and his best finish on the PGA Tour before he turned 50 was a tie for seventh. Doyle, who must have the shortest backswing in golf-shorter even than Doug Sanders some years ago-has won six times on the Senior PGA Tour. He also won his first major, the Senior Players Championship.

  • Ed Dougherty
    Ed Dougherty is making a mint on the Senior PGA To, after winning once in nearly a quarter-century on the junior tour, another way the older fellows refer to the PGA Tour. Until now, his favourite hobby was collecting and running model trains. Now it’s cashing checks. He’s earned some $3.3 million on the senior tour, after $1.3 million on the PGA Tour. Dougherty has won twice in four years on the Senior PGA Tour.

    More success stories
    Dana Quigley, who never won on the PGA Tour, and has won five times on the Senior PGA Tour. Walter Morgan, who served two terms in Vietnam and was in the U.S. Army for 20 years, worked as a club pro in Texas until he turned 50 in 1991. Morgan won three times on the senior circuit, and some $3.5 million.

    These are the success stories, and they come from golfers who weren’t exactly big successes before they were seniors. But what of the truly most successful golfers from the PGA Tour? What have they done on the Senior PGA Tour? Well, not as much as one would think.

  • Life after PGA
    Exhibit A here is Jack Nicklaus. He won everything on the regular circuit-70 tournaments, 18 majors, the Grand Slam of the U.S. and British Opens, the Masters and the PGA Championship. And while he’s won 10 times on the Senior PGA Tour since turning 50 in 1990, that’s still hardly what one would expect, even in a limited schedule.

    Exhibit B here is Tom Watson, who won 34 tournaments on the PGA Tour. He won a couple of Masters, five British Opens, the U.S. Open. But Watson has won only four times on the Senior PGA Tour, including last year’s Senior Tour Championship and this year’s Senior PGA Championship. What gives?

    Exhibit C would be Tom Kite. He won 19 times on the PGA Tour, including the 1992 U.S. Open. Kite, who will be 52 on December 9th, has won only twice times on the Senior PGA Tour, not once this year. One would have expected more.

    Motivation counts
    Golfers who have won big before they turned 50 have trouble getting seriously interested in the Senior PGA Tour. They’re already wealthy, for one thing, and so aren’t that motivated by money. They’ve also won some of the biggest tournaments in golf, and can’t get excited about playing in the Verizon Classic or the Bruno’s Memorial Classic or the Lightpath Long Island Classic.

    Classic? The big winners on the regular tour know classic. They’ve won majors, the Players Championship, the Memorial. And most of them still believe they can contend every so often on the PGA Tour.

    Watson took a lot of heat this year when he decided to play the PGA Tour event formerly called the Heritage in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina rather than the Countrywide Tradition, a so-called senior major. Watson loves the Harbour Town course, and wanted to play there. He’d also won the tournament before.

    Kite, meanwhile, finished fifth in the U.S. Open in June. Nicklaus always feels he has a chance to contend in the Masters, which he’s won six times. Nicklaus, in fact, finished sixth in the 1998 Masters, when he was 58 years old.

    Now, Hale Irwin and Larry Nelson, both major winners on the regular tour, have had great Senior PGA Tour circuits. They’re the exceptions to the rule I’m citing: that the best players before 50 have trouble getting interested after they’re 50. Still, one wonders: Why doesn’t success on the junior tour translate more often into success on the senior tour?

    Hungry for success
    One possibility is that the golfers who didn’t win much earlier are just hungrier. And of course they are playing against golfers who are mostly older. Now they’re rookies and no longer competing against the best younger players.

    It’s all but impossible nowadays for a 50-year-old to win against the likes of Tiger Woods, David Duval, Sergio Garcia and Mike Weir. So the older golfers who haven’t had all that much success are excited when they get their mulligans on the senior tour.

    Just now it will be interesting to see how Bruce Lietzke does. He just played his first Senior PGA Tour event, the SBC Senior Open near Chicago. Lietzke turned 50 on July 18th and plans to play regularly on the Senior PGA Tour. He won 13 times on the junior circuit while never playing all that much. He preferred to stay home with his family, coach baseball and fiddle with his many cars. Lietzke shot 74-66-74 in his first Senior PGA Tour event, finishing nowhere near the lead.

    Everyman’s tour
    Clearly, the Senior PGA Tour is everyman’s tour. The AT&T Canada Senior Open is coming up in August at the Mississauga Golf and Country Club near Toronto. Tom Jenkins won last year. He’s a fine player, but hardly a name player. Don’t be surprised if a less than well-known golfer wins again this year.

    That’s because the Senior PGA Tour is the place where golfers who haven’t won much can win. A lot. It’s a place for a second career that’s often better than a first career. It’s a place where golfers can, finally, find their games. Their winning games.