Lee Trevino was hitting balls in the shade of a big oak tree last week, pausing between shots to remark on matters of major and minor interest — lacrosse, orthopedic surgery, Tiger’s swing problems, Texas barbecue, the reason he doesn’t let comedian George Lopez stay at his house (“One Mexican at my home is enough”), and Charles Barkley’s guru-proof golf swing, which Trevino, a 69-year-old Hall of Famer, said he could fix in two seconds with the aid of a tree limb and a crotch hook.
“You know who swung like that? Byron Nelson!” said Trevino. He raked a ball to his feet and hit a nice low draw despite a noticeable lowering of his head and torso through impact. “We called it a caddie dip,” he said, watching the ball fly over a target pole.
No more than a dozen spectators witnessed Trevino’s star turn. He was simply tuning up at the Triton Financial Classic in Austin. Tuesdays on the Champions tour are for checking into the hotel, answering e-mails, working out in the fitness trailer, tinkering with equipment and — if you’re as glib as the Merry Mex — charming the socks off anybody within earshot.
It is fashionable, I know, to dismiss senior events as exhibitions and the tour’s stars as has-beens. But isn’t the exhibition of skill, with a veneer of entertainment, the very basis of spectator sports? The great Walter Hagen derived most of his income from exhibition tours, and it was commonplace during the so-called Golden Age of sports to see the likes of Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx swatting batting-practice homers at carnivals and state fairs.
At the Hills Country Club, you had the bonus of Wednesday and Thursday pro-ams featuring several Heisman Trophy winners and one slightly tarnished pitching legend. Player-fan dialogue is encouraged on the Champions tour, so you could simply walk up to two-time Masters champ Ben Crenshaw and ask him for a critique of his partner, former Florida State quarterback (and 2000 Heisman winner) Chris Weinke. (“He’s a great athlete, God bless,” Crenshaw said, “but his grip is a little weak. He should spend five dollars for a grip that’s molded for his hand and work on that a while.”) Or you could ask fabled Nebraska running back Johnny Rodgers (Heisman 1972) if he had gotten any golf tips from his loquacious pro partner, Jim Thorpe. (Rodgers laughed as he staggered off the 4th green. “A tip?” he said. “Don’t fry bacon naked! That’s a tip.”)
I’d go so far as to argue that the televised hours are the least interesting on the Champions tour. That’s because competition tends to stifle the players’ exhibitionism. “Come Friday, it’s game time,” says tournament director, Colby Caldwell, who is no longer surprised when Hale Irwin’s weekday smile disappears, “but Monday through Thursday, there’s not a golfer out there who would turn his back on a fan.”
That may be overstating it; there’s still an old pro or two who would rather drink bottled bile than endure the gushing of some spectator who saw him win at Quad Cities when they both had hair. But at the opposite extreme you’ve got extroverts like former Ryder Cupper Chip Beck, whose hyperkinetic cheerleading leaves his pro-am partners grinning from ear to ear. “This is for inspiration!” a squatting Beck yelped on the 5th green last Wednesday, repeatedly dropping his ball in the cup so his teammates could listen to the rattle. “Can you hear it? Whoooo!“
“Roger’s so much fun to play with,” Peter Jacobsen said, watching Roger Clemens blast his drive over the trees on the right side (actually, the wrong side) of the dogleg-left 7th hole. “He knows he’s going to hit some foul balls, but he’s a pretty good iron player, and he can putt.” Jacobsen was returning after months of rehab from shoulder surgery. “I’m not in pain,” Jake said after he fatted an approach in the Wednesday pro-am, “but there’s a lot of rust.”
Eventually, of course, they got down to business. First-round play started at 8 o’clock on Friday morning, and three hot afternoons later you had Bernhard Langer hoisting the bronze cowboy-boot trophy. Watching Langer pose, I was reminded of the junior golf clinic on Tuesday afternoon, cohosted by Crenshaw, during which tour veteran Phil Blackmar demonstrated only one shot: the 275-yard drive … played from one’s knees.
Exhibition golf? Well, yeah. Duh.
By the way, Trevino shot a 13-over 229 and finished 73rd. Which mattered not a jot, because he was at the top of his game.