Enjoy the Champions Tour while you still can; plus, who will win a major first, Tiger Woods or Jordan Spieth?

July 1, 2014

Senior golf is more compelling than the PGA Tour in some ways. Esoteric ways.

Really, how hard is it to play tournament golf when you win $3 million or $4 million a year, score another $2.5 million in endorsements, travel by private jet and launch 330-yard drives?

The stalwarts of the Champions Tour have to overcome a lot more adversity to win a lot less money and prestige. Last weekend at the Senior Players Championship in Pittsburgh, where I live, contender Russ Cochran talked about how he had trouble holing putts down the stretch because he’s been fighting off the yips for a while now. I loved his honesty, and it makes watching him putt a far more intriguing battle than, say, some young gun playing for another top-10 finish and a six-figure check.

Kenny Perry, perhaps the king of the seniors, admitted after Sunday’s round that he’s having more trouble than ever around the greens and from the 40- to 60-yard area because he’s got occasional yips on those shots. He flubbed a few at Fox Chapel, costing him the Senior Players. Again, that makes him more intriguing. Anyone can win when they’re young and hitting on all cylinders. Watching Perry trying to win in spite of himself is compelling.

Jeff Sluman lost in a playoff to Bernhard Langer, by the way, and it was an underdog moment. Sluman even made a joke about his playoff record, which he cited as 1-10, and not to get a bet down on him the next time he gets in a playoff record. Sluman won a major on the regular tour — a PGA Championship that he snatched from Paul Azinger at Oak Tree — but he doesn’t have one on the senior circuit.

Then there was your Senior Players champion, Bernhard Langer. I’ve lost count of how many different ways he’s found to putt and how many times he’s overcame putting yips. The man is tougher than a Waffle House chicken-fried steak. His serious demeanor and lack of showmanship means he’s never really caught on with American golf fans, but if you want to take a course in how to play the game, just watch Langer. Or Tom Kite a few years ago.

There’s no debate about the significance or relevance of Champions Tour events. It’s still an exhibition tour. That’s why it was founded, and people who attend typically have an excellent experience. It’s the part about passing off the tournaments as important competitions that the public and the media have a tough time buying.

The Fox Chapel finish was a good example of what’s right with senior golf. Four players had a chance to win in an exciting finish that was ultimately decided in a playoff. It was a good show, it was close, and knowing that these players have more than just their opponents to beat adds to my appreciation.

As far as being a senior major goes, well, that’s mostly marketing. The Senior PGA is a real senior major, dating to 1939 and its origin at Augusta National Golf Club. The rest are all Johnny-come-latelys. As a fellow golf-writing colleague once observed, “There are no senior majors.”

I wouldn’t go that far. The senior circuit may not be around forever, just like our senior stars. It comes up about $20 million short of breaking even every year and has to be propped up by the PGA Tour. Maybe you dismiss it as relevant, but I still enjoy watching these guys win their little battles. You may not think so now, but if and when the senior tour goes away someday, you’ll miss it, and golf will be poorer without it.

Meanwhile, here is what’s happening in the Van Cynical Mailbag:

Van Cynical, Does Jordan Spieth win a major before Tiger Woods adds another? — @spartangrass via Twitter

Damn, if I gave out prizes for great questions, Sparty, you’d get one. Hey, you want a stick of spearmint gum or something? I can probably write that off my expenses. Let’s reduce your question to its essence: Do I think the most promising player in American golf, who was runner-up at this year’s Masters, will win a major before a formerly great player coming off summer back surgery? Spieth has the tools, but that doesn’t mean he still isn’t going to need three or five more years. Lacking substantiated information on Tiger’s condition, I’ll go with Jordan. For 15 years, I’ve been saying it’s a bad idea to bet against Tiger, and most of that time, it’s been true.

Vans, Do you think golf’s governing bodies will ever do anything about driving distance? Maybe it will happen when someone averages 400 yards? — Marcel Moran via Twitter

Sorry, Marcel, Happy Gilmore is not yet on the horizon, but you’re right to chime in, again, about distance. The idea that distance increases have been stopped is not true. A few weeks ago, I mentioned a stat I found: This season, there had been more than 580 drives of 350 yards OR MORE on the PGA Tour. Sure, that includes a bunch from Kapalua, where players hit down a mountain on some holes. Even so, there are a disturbing number of 350-plus drives being bashed. I’m not talking 300 or 320 or even 330. I’m talking 350!! Before we need to create 700-yard par-5s, something needs to be done about distance in professional golf while it still resembles golf. But I don’t see anyone out there right now with the guts to make the call.

Van Cynical, Does Stacy Lewis get a blue WalMart vest with her NW Arkansas victory? If not, she should. — Michael (Mannix) O’Connor via Twitter

Making WalMart jokes is like shooting fish in a barrel, Mannix. Very, very old fish. So I’m going to resist the temptation. Your idea is superb. She should get a vest. Also one of those T-shirts that says, “Ask me about my grandkids!” Maybe it’ll happen if WalMart takes over as the sponsor.

Sickle, It doesn’t look like the Michelle Wie golden age lasted very long. She got smoked by Stacy Lewis right after her U.S. Open win. Agree? — RogerG via email

Lighten up, RG. If you win a major championship and get the weight of the world lifted from your shoulders, then spend a week in New York City building your brand by appearing on every conceivable TV show, then you’re allowed to have a little letdown. Oh, and Wie didn’t get smoked by some no-name Q-school bum; she got edged by the best player in women’s golf. This is still Wie’s time, whether she continues to pile up tourney wins or not.

Van Cynical, It looked like that Fox Chapel course you wrote about was devoid of fans during last weekend’s Senior Players Championship. How bad was the attendance? — NebraskaDave vie email

I’m not gonna lie, Dave, it was a weak crowd. It was hot and humid in Pittsburgh with possible thundershowers in the forecast both days on the weekend. That may have kept some spectators away. Also, given the week’s earlier rains, fans knew it was sloppy wet at Fox Chapel and who wants to spectate in that mush? One other thing tourney organizers everywhere underestimate is how much fans despise parking miles away and then waiting to catch a shuttle bus to the course. You’ve got to really love golf to work that hard to watch it. A lot of fans left Fox Chapel after a downpour hit the leaders at the turn. Those remaining at the finish numbered embarrassingly in the hundreds. Well, maybe they’ll draw better next year in Boston.

Van Sickle, tell me one thing I should know about the British Open? — mac1318 via email

The Brits hate it when we call it the British Open. To them, it’s just the Open Championship — the only Open Championship in the world that matters, our U.S. Open be damned. Also, don’t be confused when you hear talk about Hoylake and Royal Liverpool. They’re different names for the same course and are used interchangeably. “Breaking your duck” is a British phrase that means getting your first win. Cheers.