Tom Purtzer has been a company man since joining the PGA Tour in 1975, but with its decision to ban carts on the Champions tour, starting in 2005, the company has let him down. "This whole thing has opened my eyes," he says. ¬∂ Purtzer isn't the only longtime loyalist to lose faith in the suits at Tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. On an average week more than 20 players in the Champions tour's 78-man field use carts, which have been allowed since the inception of the over-50 circuit in 1980. Purtzer and his equally disillusioned colleagues feel that eliminating the perk is an attempt to weed out the older players in favor of a younger, more competitive membership.
"I'm P.O.'d," says Gibby Gilbert, 63, who had back surgery last December. "I don't want someone telling me when to leave."
Not everyone, though, will miss the carts or agrees with the theories about why they're being banned. "That is absolute b.s.," says 56-year-old Allen Doyle. "It might be my personal view that some [players] have stayed too long, but that's not why we're getting rid of carts. Carts look unprofessional."
However the players come down on the issue, the Battle of the Carts II--the company lost the first fight to Casey Martin in the courts and in the court of public opinion--comes at a bad time for a tour that on Sunday wrapped up yet another forgettable season with Mark McNulty's one-shot win over Tom Kite at the Charles Schwab Cup Championship in Sonoma, Calif. In recent years the tour has changed its name from Senior to Champions and moved from ESPN to CNBC to the Golf Channel, all in the hope of injecting some life back into a circuit that, except for cameos by Jack and Arnie and Chi Chi, creates about as much buzz as Ralph Nader. For the 69-year-old Rodriguez, no carts means no màs for his playing future. "I'm not bitter," he says. "I'm sad. The carts have been around for 25 years, and they never hurt anything."
Some anticart proponents have adopted a Darwinian approach, echoing the arguments made several years ago in the Martin debate: The game should be a test of endurance as well as skill. "There are a lot of guys right now taking carts who don't need them," says Hubert Green, 57. "They do it for one reason--because they're lazy."
The poster boy cited by these critics is the hefty Ed Fiori, who says a bad back and weak heart--he suffered a heart attack on New Year's Eve 2003--force him to use a cart at age 51. "I'd be more sympathetic if I didn't see Ed downing a steak every time I walked into the dining room," says one player who prefers to remain anonymous. "He should get in shape."
Fiori has heard it all before. "My back is worn out," he says. "What do you want me to do? I've lost 25 pounds since my heart attack, and they finally cut me loose where I can ride the exercise bike."
Cart supporters claim that the surveys they have conducted since the cart ban was approved by the PGA Tour Policy Board last November show that roughly 80% of the players support the status quo. "It goes back to the question, 'Who is running the Tour?'" says Purtzer. "They've always told us that the players are supposed to be in control. Whenever Tim [commissioner Finchem] or Deane [former commissioner Beman] would be in a meeting, they'd say, 'We work for you.' Well, they're not working for us."
Not everyone buys the validity of the polls. "What are you supposed to say when they ask you if you're in favor of carts?" says Doyle. "'Get out of my face--I don't want them anymore?' If I've known you for 25 years, am I really going to tell you that? The polls are done by guys with an agenda."
Even if the results accurately reflect the players' views, that won't sway the view that counts. "Sometimes you make decisions in the best interest of the tour, and it may go against what the majority thinks," says Rick George, the Champions tour's president. George contends that eliminating carts would present a better image on television and make the tour more fan-friendly.
Some players wonder if the Tour has been straight with them. According to longtime pro Kermit Zarley, Finchem suggested at a players' meeting in 2002 that consultants advised the Tour to get rid of carts as a way to improve its public appeal. "He was saying that our image is that we're old people," says Zarley, 63. Yet last month, Zarley says, he was told by Gary Becka, the Tour's vice president of administration, that the Tour has never hired anyone to advise it on how to run the Champions tour.
"Who are these consultants?" asks Zarley, who recently filed a complaint with the Department of Justice arguing that because of a degenerative right hip he should be granted a cart under the Americans With Disabilities Act. "That is the first question I want the commissioner to answer."
Both sides are primed to fight it out in the courts. "[The Tour] was the bad guy in the Casey Martin deal," Gilbert says, "and the Tour is going to be the bad guy again."
Cart supporters cling to the hope that a change in the composition of the Champions tour's policy board next year (pro-carters Purtzer and Leonard Thompson will replace anticartists Green and Bob Gilder) will make a legal challenge unnecessary. If three of the four members vote to revisit the matter, the ban will likely make the agenda of the PGA Tour Policy Board meeting in March. Yet with holdover members Doyle and Howard Twitty opposing carts, that possibility is also remote.
The stakes are not as high for sixtysomethings who have already turned their mulligans into millions. But at 52, Purtzer is in the middle of the 50- to 55-year-old window during which seniors typically are their most competitive. Purtzer, who has suffered from a degenerative back condition since his early 40s, has eight children, including two sets of twins, ages six and two. If he has to walk, he'll be forced to curtail his schedule.
"In my last years on the regular Tour I kept thinking, Hang in there until you're 50, and you'll be able to use a cart," Purtzer says. "I'm out here for a different reason than a lot of these guys: I still have to be a breadwinner."
Purtzer gets especially riled up when recounting what happened a few days after he won the Toshiba Senior Classic in March. He was relaxing at home in Scottsdale, Ariz., when he opened what he assumed was a congratulatory letter from the tour. It was a note that he would be fined for a critical comment he made about the cart issue to a newspaper reporter. Purtzer gave his version of the story to the tour and avoided a fine, but the damage was done. "I've never been so mad in my life," he says.
Purtzer hopes to avoid a lawsuit, but if the Champions tour doesn't reverse its policy before the 2005 season opens in late January, he'll join the fight. "The Tour has made me feel like an outcast," he says, "but I only want to do what everyone else out here has been doing for 25 years."
"I'm not bitter, I'm sad," says the 69-year-old Rodriguez, who is likely to retire if he can no longer ride. "The carts have been around for 25 years, and they never hurt anything."
Photograph by Darren Carroll
Green, a policy board member, is against carts, but he has been riding since returning to the tour after cancer treatment.
An anticart senior pro says that Fiori, only 51, doesn't need to ride; he needs to know when to push back from the table.