Tuesday, September 2, 2003

Champions Tour has debate on age

New president favors keeping cutoff at 50

By John Erardi
The Cincinnati Enquirer

In recent years, there has been talk about some day soon lowering the threshold age for admittance to the PGA Tour's Champions Tour from 50 to 45.

Do that, and all of sudden, here come guys like Greg Norman and Curtis Strange. And not too far behind is gallery favorite Fred Couples.

No offense to the graybeards on the Champions Tour (formerly known as the Senior Tour) but infusing the AARP circuit with guys like Norman and Couples would immediately change the tour's soundtrack from Grateful Dead to salsa.

It would be like that scene in the movie Caddyshack, when Rodney Dangerfield hits the dance floor . . . and shakes up the whole scene.

Great idea, right?

Well, yes, it is - if you're one of those touring pros on the sunny side of 50 . . . or if you're hosting, or sponsoring, or attending, a Champion's Tour event, such as this week's Kroger Classic at the TPC at River's Bend.

But what if you're a touring pro on the shady side of 50? What if you're Hale Irwin, still tearing it up on the Champions Tour well into your mid-50s? Do you think Irwin is anxious to have these youngbloods headed his way? And do you think the PGA Tour - which already suffers from personality (and TV ratings) deficit every time Tiger Woods is not in the hunt - wants to lose guys like Norman and Couples?

Margie French, tournament director of the Kroger Classic, would love to be out there wooing players such as Norman and Couples for her event.

When the Enquirer called French last week to see how she felt about the subject, she didn't want to talk much about it. But it was clear she's in favor of lowering the age.

And she has plenty of company among the 31 tournament directors on the Champions Tour.

So it was surprising to hear Rick George - named president of the Champions Tour in May - say last week that he was not in favor of lowering the age of the tour to 45.

But think about it: Would the PGA Tour have hired George to run the Champions Tour if the PGA brain trust thought that the first thing George would do was go around advocating the strip-mining of the top personalities from the regular tour and putting them on the Champions Tour?

"I don't see that happening (lowering the age to 45) in the foreseeable future," George said. "I feel good about the Champions Tour and the players we have playing on it. They play great golf . . . and the way they interact with the fans and the sponsors is tremendous. It is a great group" of guys.

If George is right that the age for the Champions Tour is not going to be lowered in the foreseeable future, that means local golf fans will have wait until '04 to see funnyman Peter Jacobsen and '05 to see Greg Norman and Curtis Strange - that is, if they enter the Kroger Classic.

Couples, a month shy of turning 44, is even farther down the waiting list. But he is also one of the touring pros most anxious to have former major winners - who aren't quite old enough for the Champions Tour - get a chance to bag some good money via some self-contained events.

There was some talk about the Champions Tour taking that idea to the next level - having 45-49-year-olds to play on their tour - but it apparently isn't yet close to happening.

Before George began running a PGA tour stop in New Orleans - an event where the total purse was $1.7 million when he took over, and was $5 million when he left.

Since taking the top job on the Champions Tour in May, George has been traveling to each tour stop. He will be here Wednesday and Thursday. As president of the Champions Tour, George is responsible for aspects of the Champions Tour, including marketing, player relations and title sponsor relations.

He said he believes one of the strengths of the Champions Tour is how well the players interact with fans and sponsors. Of all the spectator sports, only NASCAR comes close to being so fan friendly.

If you go: Five tips

Remember these factors if you're attending this week's Kroger Classic at the Tournament Players Club at River's Bend in Maineville:

•  Excellent places to watch the action: The bleachers at holes 7, 16 and 18.

•  Getting autographs: Outside the scorecard-verification trailer, next to the clubhouse, after your favorite player(s) have finished their round(s).

•  Follow the final group: On Sunday, after the players in the final group have hit their second shots to the 18th hole, the gallery ropes come down and you're allowed onto the fairway to make the walk up to the 18th to encircle the green to watch the action up close.

•  Don't miss "Demo Day": From 1-6 p.m. Friday on the back driving range, five club manufacturers will allow you to hit balls with the new models.

• Don't miss "The Clinic": From 1-2 p.m. Saturday on the back driving range, the staff of famed instructor Dave Pelz will conduct a short-game clinic.

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