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The not-so-old oldsters

The seniors wax sentimental over their own tournament at Dunedin, but they play like the tigers of yore

Anyone who recalls the name of Paul Runyan very likely knows some of the words to Bandleader Ray Noble's The Very Thought of You. Both were big in the '30s. Last week at Dunedin, Fla. a lot of those old Noble addicts and/or their contemporaries were delighted to watch Paul Runyan win another exciting golf tournament, even though it had to be at the expense of Jimmy Demaret, who, at 50, is only two years younger than Runyan but nonetheless familiar to a much younger group of golfing fans.

The tournament was the PGA Seniors' championship, an event for codgers over 50. Judged simply by the kind of golf that was played, no one would ever have guessed that the entrance requirements for this tournament had anything to do with age. Runyan's four winning rounds were 67, 70, 72, 69-10 under par on a course that played considerably harder than many of those on the regular pro tour. With the notable exception of Runyan himself, who is still the same trim 5-foot 7-inch 142-pounder he was in his heyday, the only clue to the seniority of the contestants would have been their waistlines and a certain snowy tendency in the hair.

The way Runyan took charge of the tournament on the final day will remind a great many people of the uncompromising competitor who twice won the PGA Championship in the '30s and five times won a place on the Ryder Cup team. As he teed off on Sunday, Runyan was two strokes behind Clarence Doser, a teaching pro from Gaithersburg, Md., who led after the first three rounds and was playing in the threesome just behind Runyan. In Runyan's threesome and trailing him by three strokes was Demaret, playing in the Seniors for the first time.

During the early holes all three went over par—Runyan with some erratic tee shots and Demaret with a tendency to draw his short iron approach shots into trouble to the left of the greens. But as they warmed to their work they hacked away at par, and yet Demaret could never come any closer than two strokes of catching Runyan. It was then that Runyan's loose-jointed buggy-whip swing—something he would never dare teach his pupils at his home club in La Jolla, Calif.—began to function precisely. With Demaret never easing the pressure for a minute, Runyan rebuilt his lead with three birdies on the final nine holes. Behind them, Doser had been playing every shot as if it were his last in this world, but his touch had left him, and he finished with a third-place 75, losing six strokes to the 69s of Runyan and Demaret.

After holing out his final putt on the 18th, Runyan doffed his little yellow cloth hat, managed one of his few smiles of the week and set off at a dogtrot down the path for the clubhouse. In a moment he was on the long-distance phone to his wife in California to tell her the good news in his shrill Arkansas accent. "Kiss the boys for me," he said before racing back to get his winner's cup and a $1,500 check.

Runyan's acceptance speech must rank among the most grateful ever made at a sporting event, and it also said a great deal about the way the older pros feel toward this tournament. "Except for making the Ryder Cup team the first time," Runyan said in part, "I am keener about winning this championship than anything I have done in golf. It has become more important to us who compete in it than anything except our jobs and our families."

One must concede that for thrills and gutty action, a golf tournament for seniors sounds as if it might be in a league with quoits and shuffle-board. At first glance at Dunedin (pronounced done eden) this seemed a reasonable assumption. The village lies a little bit north of St. Petersburg, in the oldsters' belt of resort towns on the somnolent waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Someone once said that this part of Florida must be a lot like heaven. No wings have sprouted yet but just about everyone has snow-white hair and not a care in the world. It is certainly an appropriate place for the oldtimers of professional golf to gather for their annual midwinter championship and gabfest, as they've been doing since 1945, when the tournament, then eight years old, moved to Dunedin.

Watching the seniors play golf is a useful lesson in the subtle art of getting the most results out of the least effort. They don't wow you with stupendous drives, but they make up in finesse what they lack in power. A great many of the older ones—those above 55 like Gene Sarazen (58), Willie Hunter (69), Pete Burke (55) and Mike Brady (73)—learned to hit the golf ball with their wrists and hands and never developed the extreme body motion that characterizes the best of the players who came along in the last quarter century. As a result, the aches and pains and stiffness that usually accompany the years past 50 haven't disfigured the grace of their motion when they swing a golf club.

For the first 17 years of the tournament, the PGA Seniors was strictly for fun. Over the protests of some of its younger members on the tour, the PGA put up a modest prize of $2,000 in the early years, and an elderly golfing buff donated the A. K. Bourne Trophy. It went along like that as a two-day, 36-hole event where a few dozen club pros and superannuated champions could meet to relive some of their past glories.

It wasn't until Schieffelin & Co. discovered the tournament that it took on the patina of a big sports event. The New York firm that imports and distributes Teacher's Highland Cream, which, as any self-respecting tippler knows, comes from a distillery and not a cow, was looking for a way to promote the product. They got hold of their Madison Avenue ad agency. Golf is the Scottish national game, so why not tie in golf and Scotch? They ran the idea up the flagpole, and it waved gloriously.

Fortunately, Ronald Teacher, the current chairman of Wm. Teacher & Sons, Ltd., had himself been a low-handicap golfer in his prime. He agreed to put up the money.

The gimmick, as they say on Mad Ave., is roughly this: thirty-four sectional championships around the U.S. are open to all PGA members over the age of 50. The winner of each sectional championship gets his transportation paid to and from Dunedin, but any other PGA member over the age of 50 is welcome to enter the tournament on his own. Teacher's pays, all the costs of promoting and staging the tournament and puts up $15,000 in prize money. In addition to the winning prize ($1,500) and the Teacher's Trophy, the champion gets another $1,500 to cover an all-expenses-paid trip to Britain in the summer, where he meets the British Seniors champion for the Teacher International Trophy. This has been going on since 1954, the year Teacher's got into the act.

It is one of the blessings of the Seniors' championship that Ronald Teacher has adapted himself so disarmingly to the role of sponsor. A ruddy, stocky little Scotsman of 60 years who is far more noted in the home country for his yachting than his golf, Ronnie Teacher stands smilingly around the first tee at Dunedin for six days—as conspicuous a fixture of the tournament, in his London-tailored tweeds, as Gene Sarazen, a two-time winner, is in his knickerbockers. "My biggest problem," Teacher says over a wee doch-andorrock, "is keeping the directors at home. They all think they ought to be over here helping me. Now what possible help could I need at this sort of work?" he asks, eying his spot of Highland Cream.

Although the Teacher's name is omnipresent at Dunedin, Teacher himself is the softest of salesmen, almost diffident in his quiet friendliness. And in view of the approximately $50,000 he puts up each year to make the Seniors' possible, no one-least of all the pros who enjoy it so much—would begrudge his company a little unobtrusive advertising.

That is why one incident on the opening day of this year's tournament put everyone in such a flap. Ronnie Teacher was on the starting tee that morning having his picture taken presenting checks for expenses to the various sectional winners as they were teeing off. One of these was a little pro named Toney Penna, who designs clubs and supposedly spreads good will for the MacGregor Co. of Cincinnati. Toney refused to pose with Teacher, and he waved aside the proffered check with a sneer, giving the general impression that he considered the sum inadequate.

Fortunately, there was only one Toney Penna among the 382 pros at this year's Seniors' championship. The others seemed to agree with old Mike Brady, who said: "It's about the best time we oldtimers have all year."