In the larger scheme of things, it probably would have been
better for the Senior tour if Jack Nicklaus--or Raymond Floyd or
Dave Stockton or any other player with a name folks would
recognize--had won last week's $1.8 million Ford Senior Players
Championship at the TPC of Michigan in Dearborn. With apologies
to Hale Irwin and Dr. Gil, this year the geezers' circuit began
to run a serious charisma deficit the minute Johnny Miller, who
turned 50 on April 29, decided that he preferred the tower at 18
to playing the tour.
On the other hand Larry Gilbert's three-shot win in the fourth
and final Senior major of the season could be viewed as a
victory for the underdogs and the dreamers, and especially for
all the club pros who keep the game humming by devoting their
lives to curing Mr. Smith's incurable slice. They are Gilbert's
kind of people.
Gilbert turned pro in 1967 but played the regular Tour only one
year, 1972, earning $1,633. He gave the Tour up because his son,
Allen, then a year old, suffered from allergies. "He was
allergic to dust, mold, mildew," says Gilbert, "and when you
stay in third-rate motels, what do you sleep in?" So he took his
family back to Kentucky, where he was content to be a club pro
until he became eligible for the Senior tour, in 1993. Everybody
knew that he could play--you don't win three National Club Pro
Championships, as Gilbert did in 1981, '82 and '91, unless
you've got some game--but could he compete against the best of
his generation? Gilbert believed in himself enough to take the
$4,000 in the family bank account and gamble that he could. So
far he has parlayed that four grand into more than $3 million.
Last week Gilbert played superbly in the first two rounds,
shooting 67 and 68 to take the lead at the halfway point. He
faltered on Saturday with an even-par 72 but remained in a
four-way tie for the lead. "After the way I hit it," Gilbert
said at the end of the tournament, looking back on his Saturday
performance, "I wouldn't have given a plugged nickel for my
chances on Sunday."
But on the range before the final round Gilbert and his caddie,
Ned McAfee, a former club pro, detected an alignment problem.
Gilbert made an adjustment, then birdied four of the first seven
holes to become the man to beat. Then, on the back nine, he
played steady golf while the others fell apart trying to catch
him. Not that anyone noticed until the very end. The galleries
flocked mainly to Nicklaus.
By finishing eight under on a course that he had designed,
Nicklaus convinced himself, after Hamlet-like soul-searching,
that he is playing well enough to tee it up in this week's
British Open at Royal Troon. In addition, the mere fact that he
was in the hunt, along with Floyd, Stockton, Lee Trevino and
other icons, assured that the Ford Players was the Cadillac of
this year's Senior majors.
The Tradition? Gil Morgan, a rookie, won it by six. The PGA
Seniors? Irwin in a 12-stroke walk. The U.S. Senior Open? It was
competitive but evolved into a final-round duel between Graham
Marsh and John Bland, a couple of foreigners with low Q ratings.
Marsh won, but the atmosphere was Bland, as have been the
television ratings for the Senior tour all season. Not one event
has drawn a higher rating this year than last, and viewership is
down more than 20% across the board.
Do we have a problem here? Not according to Irwin. "I don't
think the Senior tour has gotten bland," he says. "Competition
will help any tournament, but the winner doesn't want to go down
to the last hole. I'm sure Gil didn't mind winning by a big
margin, and I didn't mind. As for the Open, I thought it was
exciting. I don't look at it like, if you're not making birdies,
you're not playing good golf. It's the competition and how the
players react to it--that's what's exciting."
Yes, but the Senior tour hasn't produced a personality to match
the excitement generated by the LPGA's Annika Sorenstam or by
Tiger Woods on the regular Tour. Miller could have helped, but
he won't make his Senior debut until the Franklin Quest
Championship later this month in Park City, Utah. Miller, who
went to school at BYU, says he waited so that he could give the
Park City event a boost, and because of his busy schedule with
NBC he also needed some time to get his game in shape. Miller
acknowledges that as the big-name players fade from the scene,
the younger Seniors will have to work hard to maintain the
public's interest. "There's a core group that transcends
performance," Miller says. "The bottom line is like Frank
Sinatra. He may not sing well anymore, but you want to see how
he's doing. Then, as the young guns like myself, Larry Nelson
and the others come in, we'll smile and yuk it up a bit. I've
learned that there's entertainment value that goes with golf. I
see the game from a whole different perspective."
Tour commissioner Tim Finchem stopped in Dearborn last week,
partly to allay concerns that the Senior tour is slipping.
Pointing out that stars such as Tom Kite, Lanny Wadkins and Tom
Watson will become eligible for Senior play in 1999, Finchem
predicted that "the best years of the Senior tour are ahead."
The fans at Dearborn got plenty of good golf, and a good story,
out of Gilbert. As a kid growing up in Vine Grove, Ky., near
Fort Knox, Gilbert helped his dad build the family homestead out
of wood salvaged from an Army mess hall. At 13, Gilbert got into
trouble--he and some buddies ransacked a house--and his dad
suggested that Larry turn his energies to golf. He became good
enough to earn a scholarship to Middle Tennessee State. "I
hitchhiked from home to Murfreesboro, and all I had to my name
was a bedroll, a suitcase, my golf clubs and $5.25 in cash,"
says Gilbert. Those were the days when he would practice alone,
imagining that he had an eight-foot birdie putt to beat Arnold
Palmer or Nicklaus in the final round of the U.S. Open. "That
kind of visualization is good," Gilbert says, "even though I
missed the putt 90 percent of the time."
When he got out of school, Gilbert worked his way up the
ladder--assistant pro, then head pro at two Kentucky clubs. His
success in the National Club Pro gave him an entree into such
events as the World Series of Golf and the PGA Championship.
Although he acquitted himself reasonably well, Gilbert ran into
a stone wall when he decided to try the Senior tour. He asked
Hillerich & Bradsby Co., the maker of Louisville Slugger
baseball bats and PowerBilt golf clubs, for $15,000 in seed
money but was turned down, even though he had been pushing H&B
products for 25 years. Gilbert and his wife, Brenda, decided to
take their savings and go it alone. In his second Senior event
Gilbert earned $12,000 and hasn't looked back. Had he never won
a Senior major, Gilbert would have been more than content. In
1994 he won two events, including the Vantage Championship,
which most of the players consider the fifth major. Earlier this
year, in fact, he was talking of more or less retiring after the
'98 season so that he and Brenda could buy a motor home and see
the country. "When you're on tour," Gilbert says, "you see the
hotel and the golf course, and that's about it." There are some
memories, though, that last forever.
Sunday evening, as Gilbert walked off the 18th green and headed
toward the scorer's tent, his right arm around Brenda and his
teeth clenched on a cigar, someone stepped out of the crowd and
embraced him. "Congratulations, Larry," said the man. "Well
done." When Gilbert looked up, his eyes filled with tears.
"Thanks so much for that, Jack," he said. Then Nicklaus faded
into the background so the good ol' boy from Kentucky could have
his moment in the sun.
"That's a moment I'll treasure for as long as I live," Gilbert
said later. Surely club pros everywhere would understand.
COLOR PHOTO: ANDY LYONS/ALLSPORT [Larry Gilbert smoking cigar]
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE Nicklaus's play convinced him he wouldn't lose face at Troon. [Jack Nicklaus golfing]