It wasn't long ago that the Toshiba Senior Classic was the laughingstock of the Senior PGA Tour, but the tournament has become a tour darling for its ability to turn a profit and draw high-profile players.
Now comes news that the success of the tournament is a significant factor in the formation of a new West Coast swing, and the quality of the course at tournament site Newport Beach Country Club has played a role in a tour decision to make courses more difficult at tournaments across the country.
It's all part of a new-look senior tour unveiled this year--an attempt to breathe life into a tour that has been in decline.
Other significant changes include a $2.1-million bonus pool based on points accumulated throughout the season and a new television deal with CNBC to broadcast 33 of the 38 official money events. Network television will broadcast the four majors.
The Toshiba, which has gone from bankruptcy and lawsuits to the most successful stop on tour, has been looked at closely in making some of the changes.
"They have really made a marked turnaround in that event over the last few years," said Michael McPhillips, Senior PGA Tour director of business affairs. "That tournament and Newport Beach Country Club have been major players in trying to reinvigorate the tour."
If the tournament field's strength is an indication, the ship is headed in the right direction.
The Toshiba, which begins Friday, boasts a field that includes 33 of the top 34 money winners from 2000. Bob Murphy, who finished 30th, can't play because of commitments as a television broadcaster.
Tom Watson and Raymond Floyd are playing Newport Beach for the first time, fan favorites Chi Chi Rodriguez and Lee Trevino are coming back and top players Larry Nelson, Bruce Fleisher and Hale Irwin will also compete.
Every winner of the senior tour money title since 1992 is playing. Every senior tour player of the year since 1992 is playing. It adds up to an impressive field even for the Toshiba, which has historically attracted many of the top draws in senior golf despite an isolated spot on the schedule.
For the last two years the Toshiba was sandwiched between events in Florida and Mexico. This year it is followed by the SBC Senior Classic in Valencia and the Siebel Classic in Silicon Valley.
The SBC spent 11 years as an October event before the schedule change and the Siebel was created specifically to give the tour more presence on the West Coast. Both tournaments expect fields similar to the Toshiba.
"For the last few years, the Toshiba was operating as an island out [on the West Coast]," said Jeff Monday, chief of operations for the Senior PGA Tour. "Now we have three tournaments back to back and players can go out there for a few weeks instead of flying back and forth across the country."
The main draw of the Toshiba has always been the course. Its old, traditional style and difficult greens make scoring well a challenge, something the players say has been lacking on the tour.
"If you hear any of the good players talking, they all want good courses," said Allen Doyle, defending champion of the Toshiba. "It's kind of frustrating if you go to a place and you shoot 14 under par and you finish tied for seventh."
Several players approached the tour with similar complaints and the tour has taken action. Plans are to make the greens faster, the fairways firmer and the rough more penal at all courses the tour plays.
In four stroke-play tournaments so far this year, the average winning score has been 12.7 strokes under par. The same four tournaments last year produced an average winning score of 13.3 under. In five years at Newport Beach Country Club, the winning average has been nine under.
"We want to make sure we are testing the skills of the players," Monday said. "We want to identify the best players. The players of today are remaining competitive well beyond [age] 55 and guys are beginning to gear up for the tour when they are 45. They know the senior tour is there so they stay sharp. It's making for better competition and greater depth."
Of course, a little extra cash never hurt as an incentive. A bonus pool of $2.1 million in tax-deferred annuities will be divided among the top five finishers in a points race. Points are awarded to the top 10 finishers each week. The player in first at the end of the season earns a $1 million annuity.
"Reaction of the players to that has been fantastic," Monday said. "The prize money is such that it has grabbed their attention."
Now, if it can only grab the attention of fans, who so far have not been able to find the tour on CNBC. The Senior Tour reports a drop-off in viewership after terminating a long association with ESPN, where ratings had steadily declined over the last three years. The tour, however, is not concerned.
"Any time you have change it's going to take the viewers a while to find us," McPhillips said. "We expected that."
CNBC sister network PAX-TV will broadcast on Fridays from 1-3 p.m. when tournaments are in the Eastern time zone and 2-4 p.m. when they are not. CNBC will broadcast every Saturday and Sunday from 3-5 p.m., even if it means tape-delayed broadcasts. The Newport Beach event will be telecast live.
"The key element there is the consistent time slot," Monday said. "Once the viewers find us, they'll know where and when to look every week."