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Champs, Not Gramps

Tour for players 50 and older has new name and new strategy to boost interest

March 14, 2003|Peter Yoon | Times Staff Writer

The S-word is banned this week at Valencia Country Club. Use it and be prepared to incur the wrath of professional golf's over-50 set. You know the word, the one that used to be in the name of the tour now known as the Champions Tour. It follows freshman, sophomore and junior.

The former name has been blamed for sagging interest, some suggesting it is offensive to 50-year-olds still able to compete at a high level, and the change is part of an ongoing attempt by tour officials to reinvent the image of the tour and find a niche in the golf marketplace.

"Everybody knows that we're all 50 years old, but in this day and age ... [50-year-olds] don't look at themselves as seniors yet," said Tom Kite, the defending champion of the SBC Classic, which begins today at Valencia. "My dad is 86 years old and he doesn't think of himself as a senior yet."

Over the last two years, the tour has made an effort to make itself more fan- and media-friendly. Players grant on-course television interviews during competitive rounds, hold Internet chats and give post-round instruction clinics.

In addition, some fans are allowed inside the ropes each week for up-close viewing. All this is an effort to make attending an event a more enjoyable experience.

"Promoting ourselves as more accessible is the big key," Kite said.

In an ill-advised move two years ago, the tour switched television networks from ESPN to CNBC. Tournaments became difficult to find on television and ratings plummeted to near zero. Fan interest followed suit. The tour is making a gradual move to the Golf Channel, showing some of its events on the cable network this year and all of its events there next year.

"That was probably the low point of the senior tour," Kite said. "Through a lot of things, some not in our control, we made some mistakes.... There wasn't a lot of interest in the senior tour."

When the tour first began in 1980, such players as Arnold Palmer, Chi Chi Rodriguez and Sam Snead carried it. Soon, Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino joined them. With that kind of star power, the tour was popular, but not taken seriously as a competitive environment.

In the late 1990s a slew of unheralded players came along and changed the dynamic of the tour. Bruce Fleisher and Allen Doyle, players with limited PGA Tour success, became big-time winners on the senior tour.

It suddenly became a place for 50-something amateurs to try to make it big. Now, the tour is trying to find a comfortable balance between nostalgia and competition.

"Palmer, Nicklaus, Trevino, Player -- there's no way you can replace those guys," Kite said. "It's the same transition that the PGA Tour had to go through when those guys were no longer competitive and everybody said you're not going to replace them, but they did."

*

SBC Classic

* What: A 54-hole Champions Tour event.

* When: Today-Sunday.

* Where: Valencia Country Club (6,575 yards, par 72).

* Tickets: $15 per day.

* Parking: $5. Friday at Magic Mountain; Saturday and Sunday at College of the Canyons. Shuttle service available from both locations.

* Purse: $1.5 million; winner's share, $225,000.

* TV: The Golf Channel (today, 2-4:30 p.m.) and CNBC (Saturday-Sunday, 3-5 p.m.).

* 2002 winner: Tom Kite.

* Next week: Toshiba Senior Classic in Newport Beach.

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