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BILL DWYRE

Senior golfers get it

With the economy in the tank, the over-50 bunch continues to do more for the fans.

March 06, 2009|BILL DWYRE

As the economy moves the world of sports from days of wine and roses to nights of vinegar and thorns, there is a way to do it right and survive.

That will be on display this weekend at the Newport Beach Country Club. The PGA's senior golf tour, known in its politically correct form as the Champions Tour, will stop there today through Sunday for the Toshiba Classic.

We live in an age of unemployment, foreclosure, new age-75 retirement goals and Manny saying no, and finally, yes to $45 million. People who can't afford new shoes are asked to give an arm and a leg to see a Lakers game.

Missed that item about the high-paid player taking a salary cut so ticket prices could be reduced? Gee, so did we.

For the most part, sports is viewing the recession from afar and assuming it will stay there. It lives in a bubble of arrogance that works in good times and explodes with negativity in bad. Northern Trust takes our tax money, sponsors a golf tournament, throws a bunch of glitzy parties and gets skewered.

As in all walks of life, especially sports, some will get it and more won't.

The Champions Tour has worked for years on showing the public how it gets it. There has never been a better time than now to wave that flag.

Tuesday at 7 a.m., in a packed hotel ballroom, 500 people showed up to hear Lee Trevino speak. He is 69 years old, his days of glamour golf on a glamour tour are long over. Still, they hung on every word, giggled at every story.

He symbolizes the years of senior tour players putting accessibility over arrogance. Senior men's golf, while a niche in comparison to the football-basketball-baseball triumvirate, has positioned itself to remain healthy in a time of financial illness.

Trevino, of course, attracts on his personality alone. You don't carry the nickname "Merry Mex" without many years of working that persona.

But he is also part of a concerted effort that began 29 years ago, when the senior tour began as more clambake than competition.

A tour official submitted the mission statement: "The Champions Tour seeks to be the most approachable, accessible and fan-friendly arena, not only in golf, but in all of sports."

With that, the Champions Tour has talked the talk. Every day, its players walk the walk.

"We seniors," said Trevino, who tees off at 11:17 this morning, " . . . we never forget where our bread was buttered."

Bernhard Langer was the best player on the Champions Tour last year, won the Toshiba in a seven-hole playoff and said recently, "Peer pressure to do this right is not needed on this tour. We understand that the economy is down. We aren't just golfers, we are also businessmen.

"We aren't coming out here just to see what we can get out of this, but what we also can give to it."

These may be easy words from people who now play for purses totaling $51.4 million on a 26-event tour. Sunday's winner will pocket $255,000. Langer made $2.35 million on the tour last year.

This is, indeed, as most players like to call it, the great mulligan of life.

Still, in these tough times, that sort of inflated payoff for athletic achievement is more palatable going to people who acknowledge and appreciate it and are eager to do more to make it worthwhile for those who, in Trevino's words, butter their bread. The fans.

Langer talked about the two and sometimes three pro-ams they play, with an equal number of cocktail parties. He said there is always discussion of how to do more at players meetings.

Fuzzy Zoeller said that the extra efforts, the attempts to cater to both fans and sponsors, "is what makes our tour click, is how we are different."

Every year, during one of his practice rounds before the Masters, Zoeller walks off the tee box at the 12th hole, the par-three at Amen Corner, and picks out a fan from the gallery to take a shot.

"One year, I had a lady who said she had hardly ever played before," Zoeller said. "She was scared to death and then she hit it to three feet."

Trevino wants to do more.

He said that every senior pro ought to be made to compete in every tournament on the Champions Tour at least once every three years. He said that, at every tournament, when each group finishes and goes into a tent to sign their scorecards, the players ought to be directed to another tent to sign autographs until the next group comes through.

"Now is the time," Trevino said. "Now is the time to sit down and look at it. Because, chances are, if things don't turn around and we don't pay attention, we're gonna lose what we have."

Trevino and his fellow senior golfers are realists in a fantasyland. Their existence is both stunning and gratifying.

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bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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