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FOCUS ON GOLF / THE YEAR IN REVIEW

Subtle Approach

Nelson Trumps Seniors' Big Names on His Way to Almost-Certain Money Title

November 02, 2000|THOMAS BONK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was supposed to be the Tom Tom Club this year. That's what everybody expected of the Senior PGA Tour, popping fresh with Tom Kite and Tom Watson playing together at the same time and for the first time in the over-50 party game, plus Lanny Wadkins thrown in just for fun.

The name game is always a big hit on the Senior PGA Tour, where your heroes of old (also your old heroes) show up on midsize courses to collect giant-sized paychecks while riding golf carts and pretending that fans are more interested in the results (which they aren't) than the stars on display (which they are).

Given this extreme divergence of philosophy and reality, that's why 2000 was one of the more entertaining years on the senior tour. Sure, Kite, Watson and Wadkins shared their moments in the spotlight, but it was usually trained on a quiet, balding plugger you probably wouldn't recognize if he was changing the oil in your car.

That would be Larry Nelson, who made off with everything that wasn't nailed down this year and thus continued a recent tradition of the semi-unknowns dominating the big names among the gray-hair-or-no-hair-at-all set.

Nelson made off with six tournament titles, finished second seven times and is basically assured of winning the Senior PGA Tour money title unless he breaks a rib laughing about how he managed to pull it off.

A virtual certainty to win player of the year, Nelson follows the tradition of last year's champion, Bruce Fleisher, another non-big name who extracted the money title and player-of-the-year honors from his well-known brethren.

And if Fleisher was humble about it, which he was, that goes double for Nelson.

"The money title is one of those things you cannot control," Nelson said. "Somebody else can get it done too. All you can do is play well and maybe everything will take care of itself. It's just a matter of consistency."

With one official money event left, the Senior Tour Championship, Nelson has $2,650,005 to lead the list and Fleisher is second with $2,342,977. Nelson is arguably a much bigger name than Fleisher, basically because Nelson won more regular tour majors (two) than Fleisher won tournaments (one).

Hale Irwin, a three-time U.S. Open champion, is probably the greatest Senior PGA Tour player, with 29 victories and more than $11 million in prize money in less than six years. A three-time winner this year, Irwin is third on the money list with $2.1 million. The rest of the top 10 on the money list goes this way, in order: Gil Morgan, Dana Quigley, Jim Thorpe, Allen Doyle, Doug Tewell, Tom Jenkins and Hubert Green.

With all due respect to Morgan and Green, that's not exactly a Hall of Fame list, is it?

That is both the beauty and the curse of the Senior PGA Tour, which we have been reminded of once more this year. Usually, it isn't the big names who have been getting it done, it's the little guys winning more often--but the results don't really matter and it's the stars people want to see anyway.

If there's any way out of that, it would be nice to know. Here is one suggestion: Kite, Wadkins, Watson, Ben Crenshaw (when he comes out), and guys like Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and even Lee Trevino need to win some tournaments out here.

In the meantime, we have Nelson. This is not necessarily a bad thing, not when you have a U.S. Open and PGA champion as the ruling authority.

There's a chance he could have been even more effective when he turned 50 in 1998. But Nelson injured his neck at the U.S. Senior Open and sat out 10 weeks. Last year, the injury flared up twice and he sat out eight more weeks. Nelson said he has been healthy this year and it has translated into an improved and well-rounded golf game.

Besides that, he's happy to be here.

"My focus now is totally attached to the Senior PGA Tour," he said. "Before, I was still drawn to play the other tour. Then reality sets in and you realize that this is the place you are supposed to be."

Kite and Wadkins, who both turned 50 this year and joined the tour, began their new careers with victories. Kite had won twice-- including a major at the Tradition--and Wadkins won the fourth week of the year.

The year's majors were won by Kite at the Countrywide Tradition, Tewell at the PGA Seniors Championship, Irwin at the U.S. Senior Open and Raymond Floyd at the Ford Senior Players Championship.

All right, Nelson didn't win a major, but no one else won more than four events (Irwin), so Nelson said he is more than satisfied. He said when he started planning on quarterly tax payments, he was figuring a base of about $1.4 million. So far, that's about $1.2 million short, but don't tell the IRS.

If you're looking for a reason for Nelson' success, here is one. He switched to a new set of forged irons at the Tradition and a Taylor Made driver and said it has made a difference.

Another difference?

"Being in position to win a lot of times," Nelson said. "It's been a fun year. That's the reason we play this game."

Not to mention the money. In any name game, it trumps everything.

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