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COMMENTARY : Senior Open Is a Welcome Change


WASHINGTON — The enormous popularity of the Senior PGA Tour is a harsh reflection on the rest of our games. An event like the U.S. Senior Open this week at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., is almost the last place in big-time sports where fans can expect to be appreciated properly while watching athletes with good manners.

Whoever thought we'd sink so low that decent personal behavior, mixed with basic politeness, would constitute a multi-million-dollar gate attraction?

Tens of thousands of people will come to Congressional this weekend for two reasons: to see the best that's left in Hall of Fame golfers such as Jack Nicklaus, Hale Irwin and Raymond Floyd; and, for a few hours, to get away from Bud Selig and Dennis Rodman, Al Davis and Darryl Strawberry, and all the rest of our daily sporting cast of rockheads and boors.

Fellows such as Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Lee Trevino can't play golf as they once did. At the U.S. Open, where he shot an 81, Nicklaus said it'd been so many years since he struck the ball properly that he couldn't properly carbon-date the era of his last good swing -- probably the late '80s.

But Nicklaus can still smile as he shakes hands. Palmer will still sign autographs and listen while you tell him you were in his Army in 1958. Trevino hasn't forgotten how to tell a sarcastic joke. Chi Chi Rodriguez is still delighted to do his sword dance after birdies though, Lord knows, he must have done it more often than Sinatra has sung "My Way."

It's not easy to compete, to concentrate and to care about your performance while also kissing babies, entertaining a crowd and constantly confronting the truth that your game is barely a ghost of what it was.

But it's not impossible. The codgers on the Senior Tour prove it every week. Despite their girth and gray hair, they play for $30 million a year, plus nice crowds and solid TV ratings, because they grasp the insight that many sports have lost: people who pay for tickets aren't just fans. They are customers. With a choice of brands.

"To be truthful, I'm just thankful those guys [such as Sam Snead and Palmer] started this thing," former club pro Tom Wargo (who won last week in Dallas) told The Washington Post's Len Shapiro. "You ever buy a lottery ticket? Say . . . it hit, how would you feel? . . . They could put my locker in where they keep the urinals, it wouldn't matter to me. And I don't forget where I came from. These guys before me dug the ground. I'd like to plant a few more seeds."

Sounds just like Jose Canseco after a visit to Pawtucket, doesn't it?

What a relief these old golfers provide us. Just imagine, we can be almost certain that none of them will have to withdraw from the field so that, like Rodman, they can dye their hair (purple, green or pink?) for a date in Atlanta federal court to face charges they gave a former Atlanta Hawks cheerleader herpes.

This week, one of the Open contestants will be former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman. Imagine, a pro sports boss who, after 20 years in his job, can appear in public and know he'll be cheered!

What a contrast to baseball where Selig -- overmatched by the disaster he's helped create -- sits frozen at the switch as NBC and ABC, both disgusted, announce they will not bid on a baseball contract for the rest of the century.

For that matter, what a contrast to the NBA. Commissioner David Stern must wonder what comes next when Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing lead a revolt against their own union. What, a $2 million average salary doesn't cut it?

When we see Gary Player, Calvin Peete, Tony Jacklin and Tom Weiskopf this week, we'll know that, though we haven't seen them for a while, they haven't been in jail for tax evasion or to a drug-rehab center for repeat offenses.

Actually, we can be virtually certain that nothing controversial whatsoever will happen at the U.S. Senior Open.

Why, if Strawberry and Doc Gooden want to tee it up, even George Steinbrenner--patron of the second chance--can't get them a starting time.

For a few days, we can pay our money and be sure that we won't be insulted, depressed or embarrassed by what we see. Why, we can even bring our families without being ashamed of the athletes for whom we root.

Though some are in their 60s and play an elderly game, these men actually lift our spirits with a bizarre kind of rookie freshness. Just when we might expect jadedness, we meet reborn innocence.

Once, Billy Casper said of the Senior Tour, "This is a second chance for some of us to change our personalities. . . . I used to be known as a grouch and a grump. Look at me now. Wearing knickers and plus-fours and silly hats. I never thought I'd see the day."

What has transformed these seniors so that they seem like a different species from so many of our pampered, insolent jocks and grotesquely greedy owners? We might stamp the phenomenon with a cliche: maturity. But wouldn't it be closer to the truth if we said that many of these golfers died and came back to athletic life with a fresh gratitude for everything around them?

When an athlete slips from the top of his game, then gradually falls from public view until, finally, he can't find anybody who wants to interview him or ask for his autograph, a profound sobering process occurs. No matter how elite he has been, he realizes he is an expendable part of fine but fragile entertainment.

Usually, someone named Nicklaus, Palmer, Player or Trevino gets to hug the U.S. Senior Open cup on Sunday evening. But sometimes it's Larry Laoretti or Simon Hobday. Nobody cares which. Everybody has a great time. They're all just glad to be invited. And, more each year, we're certainly glad they came.

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