Some of the most remarkable athletes in the world gathered last week to celebrate their remarkable skill set, but it wasn’t for the NFL draft, an NBA playoff game or any other competition at which youth and vigor are prerequisites. The old-timers at the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf don’t look like jocks, what with their hearing aids, stooped postures and gin-blossomed visages, but they still put on a heck of a show. And no, we’re not talking about those whippersnappers Tom Watson and Andy North, both 58, who on Sunday prevailed in the Legends’ varsity division. The real stars of the week teed it up five days earlier, when the stage belonged to the 16 two-man teams in the 70-and-over Demaret division. Guys you thought were dead turned out to be alive and well, and making birdies by the bushel. Al Geiberger (age 70) and Jimmy Powell (age 73) won the two-round better-ball competition with a record score of 18 under that came by way of some vintage shotmaking. Powell closed Monday’s first round with a gorgeous chip-in on the 18th hole, and during Tuesday’s second round he holed a 92-yard sand wedge for an eagle on the 9th hole. Geiberger reached the 499-yard par-5 11th hole of the Westin Savannah Harbor Resort and Spa in two thanks to a towering five-wood shot.
“That shot felt so good,” said Geiberger, wistfully. “Kind of like the old days.”
Who they used to be is the touchstone for all of these competitors. Rotund Hall of Famer Billy Casper (age 76) made five birdies during the second round, and afterward his caddie, Rick Wynn, explained how: “He drove it great and putted like Billy Casper.” Of course, there was the little matter of the 2nd hole, where Casper topped his drive and then skulled a wedge into a hazard, and where he and his teammate Fred Hawkins (age 84!) were forced to take double bogey. “It was a sickening feeling,” said Casper, ever the grinder. “I still have high expectations for my game, but I have lost the ability to execute.”
That’s what happens when you tee it up in only one tournament a year. For many of the Demaret participants the Legends is the only competitive golf they still play. Butch Baird (age 71) says he begins preparing in January, often trying to find a little new magic after a half century as a pro. “Hell, yes, I’m still working on my swing,” says Baird. “You’re never too old to get better. Bottom line, none of us want to embarrass ourselves out here.”
Baird did quite the opposite during the first round, making six birdies and an eagle on his own ball. How did he summon such a performance? “We’re all just a bunch of old racehorses,” said Baird. “We still know what to do when we hear the bell.”
For some of the players the Legends is less about the competition than about having a chance to bask in the spotlight one more time. Doug Sanders (age 74), golf’s original peacock, spent his two days in Savannah signing autographs for every fan in sight, shamelessly flirting with the ladies in the gallery and holding court every afternoon on the putting green with his vast array of dirty jokes. “I miss being out here for the people,” said Sanders, who for the second round was turned out in pink patent-leather shoes, grey high-waisted slacks, a pink shirt and a pink-grey-and-white argyle sweater, the entire look topped off by his perfectly coiffed silver hair. “I like to give back to them all the love they’ve given me. If you don’t do the thing you love, you’re not living, just existing.”
How’s his game these days? “I still hit it straight,” said Sanders. “Matter of fact, the only time I leave the fairway is to go get a phone number.”
You’ve got to love the youthful spunk, but at the Legends the ravages of time cannot be denied. Savannah Harbor was set up at a user-friendly 6,117 yards for the Demaret group, with three of four par-5s under 500 yards and nary a par-4 more than 388 yards, but that was still too much course for some competitors, even though they wield the latest high-tech clubs. (Many of the putters dated to the Eisenhower Administration.) During the second round Miller Barber (age 77) needed a driver off the tee at the par-3 15th hole, which was listed at 154 yards but played downwind. Golf carts are a necessity with this crowd, but caddies are still omnipresent, less for club selection than to serve as spotters. “Where’d that go?” should be the tournament motto.
All the old-man jokes at this year’s Legends — and there were plenty of them — were underscored by a wisp of sadness because of the absence of two longtime competitors. Orville Moody, now 74, had teamed with Powell to win five titles at the Legends (including three in the Raphael division, for ages 60 to 69), but four months ago he suffered a massive stroke that has left him, according to Powell, unable to walk or talk. An emotional Powell dedicated the victory to his stricken friend. Casper also played with a heavy heart, as his longtime partner, Gay Brewer, died last August at 75.
“I always miss him, but I miss him terribly this week,” Casper said, wiping away tears. “Life is so fragile, especially at our age. You savor these weeks because who knows how many more you’re going to get.”
Then again, the Legends offers a chance to be reborn, one shot at a time. During the second round Hawkins, the 84-year-old wonder, lipped out his tee shot on the par-3 15th hole. Was he disappointed with the near-miss of an ace?
“Not really,” said the champion of the 1956 Oklahoma City Open. “I’ll get one next year.”