Some rambling thoughts and observations from the Senior PGA Championship at Valhalla:
And the Winner Is
Can we claim a Missouri State Team Championship from the final leaderboard. Tom Watson is born and bred Missouri having stayed in Kansas City his entire life. Fourth place finisher Hale Irwin is now firmly entrenched in Arizona, but after so many years on the PGA Tour playing out of wife Sally’s home town, we will always lay claim to the greatest player in Senior Tour golf and one of the all time greats at any age. Tied for 11th, Trevor Dodds may still sound like he is from South Africa, but he has been a St. Louisan through good times and bad in his professional career. People may forget that Dodds won on the PGA Tour, and although my time around him has been limited, he surely ranks as one of the nicest people you could ever deal with in professional golf. Mizzou Rah!
As a golf fan and reporter, I look at Louisville and the rewards it has reaped from Valhalla with great envy. Since the last time a major championship was staged in St. Louis, the Nicklaus designed course has hosted two PGA Championships, a Ryder Cup and now two Senior PGA Championships. Other than the first stop in 1996, all the rest have been the outgrowth of a financial partnership with the PGA of America. That doesn’t alter the fact that Derby town has left St. Louis in the dust when it comes to major events.
Those who know, or pretend to, will tell you the course is not nearly as good as the pedigree it is developing, but the results have been exceptional. I still don’t know why Ken Venturi didn’t kick Kenny Perry out the booth in ’96 to get ready for a possible playoff. Bob May never blinked through a head to head final 18 plus three against Tiger Woods in 2000. Any course that hosts an American win in the Ryder Cup these days is in select company and Sunday’s finish was compelling as well.
A quick Valhalla story.
I played the course on Monday after both PGA Championships. In 2000 I partnered with Alex Micelli, the bow tied stats guy on the Golf Channel, in a friendly wager with radio producer Janis Self and her partner on Tour, Bob Bubka.
The third hole at Valhalla is a 199 yard par three with the river off to the right side. Bubka pushed his tee shot right, and it dropped from sight over the bank. When we reached the green, Bubka and I went looking for his ball. It sat on the mud bank down the steep slope to the water. Bubka isn’t Scottish, but he showed his frugality by deciding to climb down the embankment. Almost instantly he hit the skids and tobogganed to the bottom. Fortunately there was very little water in the river because Bob would have drowned waiting for us to stop laughing at him. We had to reach golf clubs down to him to get him back up the slope.
We ran into Jeff Rude of Golfweek and some other golf writers in a couple of holes and said “Bubka went into the hazard on three.” They thought nothing of his miss until we pointed to the now baked dry, mud caked Bubka in the cart and re-emphasized, “No, BUBKA went into the hazard on three.” But he got the ball.
Hale and Hearty?
For the last couple of years I have wondered out loud on the air why Hale Irwin was still playing a full schedule on the Champions Tour. With 65 career wins between the two Tours, a run of three years with only rare appearances in the top ten, and more than seventy events without a win would have made me think the ultimate competitor from the PGA Tour wasn’t the kind to hang on and play ceremonial golf.
This last week Hale gave a hint to the answer and admitted that the road home is getting shorter.
First it was obvious that Hale can still play. He actually has nearly as many top tens this year than in the last three combined. If the putter and a bad decision on 18 on Saturday hadn’t betrayed him, he would have 46 Senior wins.
But Hale joked at the outset of his pre-tournament press conference on Wednesday, “Well, can I bring you my stack of bills? That’s a pretty good incentive right there.” I am sure they are holding no benefits for Irwin these days, but the truth is Irwin has earned more than a million dollars in those three lean years and that is a little better than he could do on Social Security.
The real Irwin answer came three days later. “I don’t know what retire means. I think anybody that has that never wants to give it up. And you’re right, this is why we are here.”
I’ve walked into a classroom more than 7000 times in my lifetime and it still seems like it is where I should be.
Champions? Yes Seniors No?
Let’s tie two elements from above together to create a third.
With a PGA Tour win on his resume and a number of years in Tour golf, Trevor Dodds should have some way to find a place on the Champions Tour. He is the second chance kind of player the Senior Tour was once. Not any more.
When the Senior Tour was floundering a few years back it was also the home of some of the great comeback stories in golf. Every year there were players who came from obscurity to carve out a reputation and a career on the over 50 tour. The Gateway’s Tom Wargo was the poster boy for that kind of story. But Wargo’s and Larry Laoretti’s don’t draw much interest when it comes to galleries and particularly TV ratings and the Champions Tour took notice.
It is now the most exclusive major tour in professional golf. The sign on the window essentially says no applications accepted. There is no qualifying for the Champions Tour to speak of and no legitimate way to find yourself inside the fold. Essentially you have had to have a name with some marquee value and a ‘gold card’ from your days on the PGA tour to make it into the old boys club. And with 54 hole no cut events as the mainstay of the Tour, it is a nice little ATM machine for many of its elites. “Appearance money” is an ugly term in American golf circles, unless you grey around the temples.
Anybody who thought the Senior PGA Championship at Bellerive in 2013 was a throw in, with the only real prize coming in 2018, just wasn’t watching this weekend from Valhalla. Since the PGA of America took this championship on the road for the last ten years, it has been a must see event in golf. The last two have been playoffs. Seven of the ten have produced winners with significant historical presence in the game. And given the politely unpredictable nature of swings and putts from the gentrified set, the product has consistently been entertaining.
Stuart Hall is editor of the Golf Press Association.