The Senior PGA Tour is getting a makeover this year, one that uses microphones and television cameras instead of makeup and is intended to inject the sagging senior tour with a jolt of charisma.
Fan-player interaction is the key to the new-look senior tour, which visits Newport Beach Country Club today through Sunday for the Toshiba Senior Classic.
Jose Maria Canizares is the defending champion after winning a nine-hole playoff over Gil Morgan last year. While such drama is important in maintaining fan interest, years of steady declines in television ratings and attendance show that competition alone could not stop the senior tour from sinking.
Making the tour more fan-friendly was paramount in the changes unveiled at the start of this season, and players are applauding the effort.
"What we're doing is fantastic," said Gary McCord, the 1999 champion at Newport Beach Country Club. "We're taking our tour and marketing it as something different that will hopefully catch everybody's attention."
Spectators will be allowed inside the ropes to follow the final group for the last few holes of the final round. Up to 12 fans per day will be selected to walk with a group inside the ropes for the entire round and several players will conduct question-and-answer sessions with fans after their rounds.
Additionally, players will conduct live, on-course television interviews during play and, eventually, the tour hopes to put microphones on selected players.
"We're marketing it all warm, cuddly and fuzzy," McCord said. "You can get close to the guys and we're gonna get guys talking coming down to the end ... kind of get it a little more personal to the golf fan."
Popular players such as Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino and Chi Chi Rodriguez carried the tour during its heyday in the late 1980s and early '90s, but as those fan favorites have grown older and cut back on their playing schedules, the tour has evolved from relaxed to highly competitive. The increased competitiveness has spawned an anti-social atmosphere, sapping charisma from the tour and earning it the label "Grumpy Old Men."
"All we're doing this year is what Trevino and Chi Chi did a hundred years ago," McCord said. "When those guys leave the tour, that's a void that you can't fill, but we're going to do the best we can with the guys we have to make this tour fun again."
Hale Irwin, who won at Newport Beach in 1998 and won the ACE Group Classic this year, acknowledged the changes might be intrusive at times but said players have to do what they can.
"I think it's a good move," Irwin said. "Letting the people walk down the fairway, it's a little more intimate environment. It's a much different perspective."
Even on-course interviews don't seem to bother Irwin, who was known to be surly with reporters.
"There's a time and there's a place," Irwin said. "If there's an understanding with the player that it might not be a good time, then it's fine. I've done several interviews this year and not minded."
McCord said that most senior tour players realize that the survival of the tour depends on player participation in the new initiatives.
"Some guys will do it and some won't," McCord said. "But the guys out here aren't dumb. They understand that we've got to remarket this thing and do something different."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
What: Toshiba Senior Classic
Where: Newport Beach Country Club
Defending champion: Jose Maria Canizares
TV: PAX (today, 2-4 p.m., delayed) and CNBC (Saturday-Sunday, 2:30-4:30 p.m.)