Nap time is over. There has been a big change on the Senior tour
while you were busy filling in the brackets for the office
basketball pool. The tour has suddenly become interesting.
Yes, Geezerville had been a major snoozefest for several years.
Bruce Fleisher dominated 1999 with seven victories, but he
hardly fired a nation's imagination. Neither did the tour's
previous top attraction, the Hale Irwin-Gil Morgan rivalry that
fizzled shortly after it never began. Television ratings and
attendance were down, and it wasn't all Tiger Woods's fault.
With apologies to the smooth-swinging Fleisher and the
slap-shot-shooting Allen Doyle, the Seniors too often played a
name game with which we were not familiar. Besides Fleisher and
Doyle, we thrilled to Dave Eichelberger, Vicente Fernandez, Fred
Gibson and Dana Quigley, guys who will be in the Hall of Fame
some day...if they buy a ticket.
Now we've got the class of 2000, the tour's most significant
group of newcomers since two of our favorite museum pieces, Jack
Nicklaus and Lee Trevino, crossed golf's great divide in 1990.
Tom Kite, Lanny Wadkins and Tom Watson have 74 regular Tour
titles and 10 major championships among them, and just as
important, they have names we recognize. "There aren't 10 golf
fans in the country who don't know Kite, Wadkins and Watson,"
says Andy North, who turned 50 last month and fills out the
foursome of marquee names.
For the most part the class of '00 had lived up to the hype. Last
fall Watson won the second time he teed it up as a Senior.
Wadkins strutted to victory in his Senior debut in February. Even
North came through, winning a team event three weeks ago. The
only thing missing was a victory by Kite, and he delivered last
week, outlasting Larry Nelson and Watson in a six-hole playoff to
win the Countrywide Tradition, the Senior tour's first major of
If Kite seemed slow getting out of the gate, consider this: He
played in 518 tournaments on the regular Tour before he won a
major (the '92 U.S. Open). The Tradition was his fifth start as a
Senior, and he goes to the head of the class for the way he won
the playoff at the Cochise course at Desert Mountain, in
When Kite and Watson returned to play the par-3 17th hole for
the third time in the playoff and the fourth time that day,
Watson missed the green and Kite nearly made an ace, rolling his
six-iron shot to within six inches of the cup. Watson walked
onto the green, surveyed the situation and amused the crowd by
observing, "I guess I know what I have to do."
Then he almost did it. His pitch shot from deep grass hit the pin
but bounced out. "That son of a gun," Kite said, smiling. "If
that ball's going any slower, it's in. It doesn't get any better
than dueling banjos with Tom Watson."
Near aces and chip-ins belied the real story on Sunday, when
every putt of more than four feet was an adventure. Kite, Nelson
and Watson all had their Senior moments on the greens, and their
play, while hardly the stuff of legends, added to the drama at
On the 72nd hole Kite left a 15-footer for birdie in the jaws,
but four inches short. Then Nelson missed a five-footer that
would have won the tournament. It got worse in the playoff.
Watson, who made some ugly strokes on the back nine, botched a
10-footer for eagle on the first extra hole. "That was really a
lousy putt," he said. Nelson exited the playoff on the next hole
when he lipped out a five-footer for par. Watson then had
another eagle try at the 18th--his third in a row there--and
missed. The fourth time they played the 18th, Kite chipped long
and missed a birdie putt. Watson was left with a six-footer for
the win, but if it's possible to hook a putt, he did, missing
terribly. That set up the return to the 17th, where Kite
finished things off with a shot so close he could've kicked it
in. "At least I scared him a little bit," Watson said.
All in all, though, Watson had a good week. He looked out of
contention after opening with a four-over 76 but came back with
a stellar 66 in the second round, when he needed only 26 putts.
If Watson can putt like that this week at Augusta, he might be a
factor. If he putts like he did on Sunday...well, he doesn't
want to dwell on that.
Says Watson, "Like Nicklaus said when he won the '86 Masters,
'This is a young man's golf course.' I asked him what he meant.
Jack said, 'You have to have a young man's nerves.' My nerves
aren't worth a damn right now."
Kite's nerves may not be in much better shape, but after his
performance last week, the Senior tour is. The tour now has
something the regular Tour never had--Kite and Watson, one-on-one,
with the chance of North and Wadkins joining the fray. Watson is
three months older than Wadkins and Kite, who were born four days
apart. "The three of us have been looking forward to this ever
since we got close to the Senior tour," Kite says. "Even though
we're contemporaries and very close in age, the times we hit our
primes really didn't coincide. We haven't had that many
opportunities to go head-to-head. To have it fall out the way it
did with a six-hole playoff in the first major was more than we
could even dream about. If that show doesn't help the tour, then
this tour can't be helped."
There's a nagging feeling, however, that Fleisher may still turn
out to be king of this hill. He's first on the money list, has
two wins this year and finished just two shots out of last week's
playoff on a course that doesn't suit him. If most of the Senior
tour is a pitching and putting contest, the edge should belong to
the best putters, Fleisher and Wadkins. On courses that emphasize
ball striking, look for Kite, Nelson, North and Watson, all U.S.
"We're all going to have periods when we play well--it's going to
be whose putting stroke holds up," says Wadkins. "Playing last
week at the Players Championship probably made this event look a
little simpler for Kite. But Watson is swinging so good it's a
joke. If he starts putting a little bit, he could win anything,
Though Kite was the last of the new Big Three to break his
maiden, Wadkins never applied the needle to his fellow rookie. "I
wouldn't do that," he says. "Tom's liable to win three in a row."
The Senior tour should be so lucky.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND Last gasp To stay alive, Watson had to chip in on the sixth hole of sudden death, and he nearly did.
Says Watson, "Jack said, 'You have to have a young man's nerves
[at the Masters].' My nerves aren't worth a damn right now."