Can the PGA Cure Senior-Itis?

It's scrambling to recharge the languishing Senior Tour

Golfers on the Senior PGA Tour can't match the booming shots of regular-tour whippersnappers like Tiger Woods and David Duval. But for pure nostalgia, what beats the sight of 72-year-old Arnie Palmer hitching up his pants? Lately, though, the Senior Tour has been showing its age. Thinning attendance has sponsors worried. And after an ill-conceived move to CNBC, TV ratings all but disappeared last season.

Against that gloomy backdrop, PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem is pushing a plan to lure fans and keep sponsors. By 2003, the commish promises a new up-close-and-personal Senior Tour featuring players wearing microphones, offering clinics to spectators, and tapping out answers to fans during Internet chats.

"It's going to be different," Finchem says. "In many ways, we'll be a laboratory for change." But are Finchem's fixes enough? There are rumblings that an outspoken group of baby-boomer pros think the proposed solutions are half-measures at best. They're urging the PGA to rethink the tour's over-50 age requirement and open the gates to pros who might move the ratings needle. As it is, most players enter a twilight zone when they hit 45--too old to win on the regular tour, too spry to play with the seniors.

HISTORY LESSON. But would lowering the age limit prevent a Senior Tour implosion? Or is a circuit that was a smash in the '80s and early '90s simply an idea whose time has passed? "The Senior Tour is golf's hula hoop," says Frank Hannigan, a former U.S. Golf Assn. exec who is a golf commentator for ABC.

For now, the Senior Tour has history and some heavyweight sponsors behind it. From a humble beginning in 1980--two tourneys with total purses of $250,000--the tour grew explosively. Last season, the seniors had a tournament nearly every week from January through October and carved up $59 million in purses. TD Waterhouse, 3M, and MasterCard, among other sponsors, paid about $2 million to hang their logos on senior events. And Charles Schwab & Co. sponsors a season-long competition called the Charles Schwab Cup.

Still, Finchem announced that the Senior Tour will drop from about 38 tourneys a year to 32. The commish says seniors will take a breather when Tiger and the regular tour have a major event. But it is also a tacit acknowledgement that the pool of sponsors isn't as deep as it used to be.

One glaring problem is that the original roster of gallery charmers like Palmer and Gary Player aren't contending for titles anymore. Jack Nicklaus sightings have been rarer since the 61-year-old champ had a hip replacement two years ago. In place of the legends are a group of lesser-knowns who shoot low scores but haven't clicked with fans.

Then there are the tour's TV woes. After a long run on ESPN, the seniors struck a four-year, $53 million deal with CNBC starting last season. Year One, with most events on tape-delay during the dinner hour, was a bust. For some events, ratings plummeted 50%.

The TV problems should ease next year: At the Senior Tour's urging, CNBC will show most tourneys live. But the players can't stop selling when the cameras turn off, Finchem has warned. He has stressed to senior pros the importance of cavorting with fans and cozying up to corporate sponsors. "It gets back to the old bottom line: We must open our doors to the people who pay our bills," says Fuzzy Zoeller, who'll be a Senior Tour rookie in 2002.

Doubters remain, however. PGA Tour veteran Peter Jacobsen applauds the fan-friendlier Senior Tour. But at 47 and six years removed from his last tournament win, he's struggling to hold his game together while he waits for a second crack at a golf career. Jacobsen lists a half-dozen friends--Curtis Strange, John Cook, Jay Haas, Andy Bean, Mark O'Meara--in the same pickle.

"Why would you want to take incredibly valuable assets and put them on the bench for six, seven years?" asks Jacobsen. Sounds like a good question for the Senior Tour chat room.

By Mark Hyman

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