In a juvenile world distrustful of anyone who does not eat pizza for breakfast and listen to cement rock music, the term senior is hardly prestigious. Senior is old, out of date, over the hill. Senior is croquet.
Thus, senior golf conjures up images of doddering creatures creeping down the fairways in wheelchairs with seat belts fastened, with oxygen bottles and canes in their golf bags and nurses as their caddies. But did you ever see a senior golfer with a fast backswing, or one who could not chip and putt? Jack La Lanne is their guru, Frasier the Lion their sex symbol and Sam Snead their rock star. Their motto is: We're not getting older, we're getting better.
That slogan held true as the senior golfers gathered on Hilton Head Island, S.C. last week. All the players were 55 or older, none were decrepit or infirm and several performed as if it were the U.S. Open instead of the USGA Senior Amateur Championship. Dale Morey won the title, and he had a busy week: 36 holes of qualifying and five matches in four days over the Harbour Town Golf Links, a rigorous, intolerant course that never lets your concentration take a coffee break. It was an arduous assignment and Morey finished it with a broad smile on his face and a bounce in his walk, beating Lew Oehmig 4 and 2 in the final on Saturday.
The setting for the week of golf was perfect. The tournament host was the Sea Pines Plantation, one of those planned communities for the retired rich who want the ocean in the backyard, a golf course out front, a tennis court on one side, a yacht basin on the other and pine trees all around their plush houses. You need a gate pass and a credit statement to get in and even the sanitation workers wear alligator shoes.
The course fit the players as neatly as a striped tie and vest. The Harbour Town layout is subtle, with fairways tightened by dense stands of pine trees and greens made to appear minuscule by devious bunkering and still, black water in ponds that nestle up against their sides. It was target golf instead of power golf. "This course makes you feel like every shot is a crisis," said Ed Tutwiler.
Like Morey and defending champion Bill Hyndman, Tutwiler is a past member of Walker Cup teams and, unlike a number of their peers, all three have stuck with the game and kept their competitive edge. Each has been runner-up in the U.S. Amateur, a tournament they have collectively qualified for more than 50 times. This year Hyndman went to the fourth round of the Amateur before losing and Tutwiler lost to the eventual champion, Jerry Pate.
Golf is a game for salesmen. Tutwiler is a Cadillac dealer in Indianapolis; Morey sells furniture in High Point, N.C.; Hyndman is an insurance broker in Philadelphia. "I'm not so sure that these young kids wouldn't be smarter to play amateur golf and work in business instead of turning pro," said Tutwiler. "Golf has opened the doors for me." Then he went out and captured the qualifying medal with 74-70-144 and described what it was like to be 55 and trying to keep your game from disintegrating: "Your mind is willing but you just can't make the parts always work." The tournament's oldest player, J. Ripley Greer, a 70-year-old real estate man from Memphis, could not get his parts synchronized and failed to qualify. Greer plays golf often, finds it an elixir and never rides in an electric cart. "I figure golf has added 10 to 15 years to my life," he said.
This Seniors was also a reunion, of course. In the evenings the competitors gathered for dinner and reminisced about past glories. Older women talk about faded beauty. Senior golfers talk about faded tee shots. One of them, John David of Indianapolis, who is nicknamed "Bomber," was once reputed to be among the longest hitters in golf. His best measured tee shot was 368 yards and, although an amateur, he beat Jimmy Thomson and Sam Snead and all of the other long-driving pros of the time in a contest at the 1941 All-American tournament at the Tarn O'Shanter course in Chicago. In fact, David was matched against the legendary Thomson in five driving contests and won three of them. In the Seniors, however, he shot 87-85 and failed to qualify. "Bomber," Tutwiler told him, "you're using the same clubs you used 20 years ago and they're too heavy for you. You've got to adjust."
All the favorites made it through their opening matches, although Hyndman needed 19 holes to beat Bob Cochran on Wednesday and Tutwiler had to go 19 holes against Truman Connell Thursday morning.
The Thursday afternoon quarterfinals saw Oehmig beat Hyndman by shooting a 32 on the back nine. Oehmig, who won the Seniors in 1972, is a 58-year-old banker from Lookout Mountain, Tenn. and the former head of the First Flight Golf Company.
Meanwhile, Morey was trampling the opposition. He won four of the first five holes of his opening match, and had a total score of one under par against his first three opponents. Morey is an advocate of physical fitness and each morning he was up early for a zesty two-mile jog before teeing off. He gulped his vitamins regularly, sipped health drinks and retired early each evening, along with his roommate, Tutwiler. Both players were making their first appearance in the tournament and each wanted the title, pointing out that it was comparable to the Miss Teenage America crown—you only have a few years in which to win it.
Morey was once a pro in two sports, golf and basketball. He played the golf circuit as a youngster but quit to play basketball with the Anderson Packers after he shot his best round, a 64 in the Montgomery Open, and Ben Hogan came in with a 63. A few years later he regained his amateur status in golf.
Morey and Tutwiler were paired in the semifinals on Friday and caution seemed to be Morey's style. He had gauged the course with a measuring wheel to get the exact yardages to the greens and gave Tutwiler a copy of the information before the tournament. "Now he wants it back," Tut said.
The match was close until the 15th hole, where Morey saved a par with a dandy chip and Tutwiler three-putted to lose a hole he seemed certain to win. Morey went on to register a 3 and 2 victory, then graciously drove Tutwiler to the airport. "I wouldn't mind driving all of them there," he said.
Oehmig moved into the final with a victory over the gloriously euphorious Norando Nannini of Chicago that was almost as much the result of luck as of skill. On the 17th, Oehmig was faced with an exceedingly difficult pitch shot, but his ball had landed near a flight of wooden steps leading down into a bunker and he was given a free drop that moved him up onto the fringe of the green. He went on to win two up.
The bane of Morey's game is a duck hook, a deadly fault on a course like Harbour Town. But throughout the week he controlled his driver, and his confidence surged in the final against Oehmig. He birdied the first two par-5s, hitting a pair of solid wood shots at each, and regularly outdrove Oehmig by as much as 30 yards. At the turn, Morey's lead was three up, but by virtue of some minor miracles like a chip-in at the 12th hole, Oehmig managed to trail by only a hole going to the 14th. There, something happened that canceled whatever good fortune the banker may have enjoyed against Nannini. Oehmig was on the edge of the green, preparing to chip when he grounded his club in what was clearly defined as a hazard. He instantly realized his error, looking like a man who had just snubbed a stop sign and then caught sight of a police car a few feet away. He lost the hole, and the next, and the next, and Morey won 4 and 2.
The triumph was sublime for the man from High Point. It was his first national title, although he had come close in the 1953 U.S. Amateur when victory had been snatched from him by Gene Littler's 40-foot putt on the last hole. Now, 21 years later, he had proved that you are never too old to win.