Pro Golf's Late Bloomers
For many talented golfers, even former PGA Tour winners, the Champions Tour gives them a shot at the big bucks
From the Print Edition:
Tom Berenger, July/Aug 2007
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For more than two decades the Champions Tour (nee the Senior PGA Tour) has been a rolling annuity for players who reach the magical age of 50. For players like Lee Trevino, Hale Irwin and Tom Kite, World Golf Hall of Fame inductees with major championship pedigrees, the Champions Tour is found money and rekindled fame. In no other sport does nostalgia come with a six-figure check.
While legendary and established PGA Tour players have padded their bank accounts and stroked their egos on the Champions Tour, the 50-and-over circuit has also provided a launching pad for the careers of obscure pros and little-known amateurs who find measures of fame and fortune, at, shall we say, a ripe old age. Who had ever heard of club pro Jim Albus before he won the 1991 Senior Players Championship and became a tour fixture? Who had heard of former career amateur Allen Doyle until he qualified for the Senior Tour and ran off 11 victories? Who had heard of mediocre PGA Tour player Dana Quigley until he Monday-qualified for a Champions Tour event in 1997, won it, and went on to earn more than $13 million?
Turning gray can, if the stars align and the putts drop, mean turning green for players who aren't packing an outstanding PGA Tour résumé and a bundle of endorsements. There always seems to be a group of Champions Tour players who wouldn't jog anyone's memories of professional success. You wouldn't remember them coming up the 18th at Augusta National with a chance to win the Masters, because they never did. They never made the covers of the golf magazines or did rental car commercials or pocketed $100,000 a day for corporate outings. But for the lucky few who make it on the Champions Tour, for those who after all these years have gotten their games together at just the right time, age is definitely a thing of beauty, and bounty.
Ever heard of Brad Bryant? In a little more than two seasons on the Champions Tour, he has won more than $3 million, nearly doubling the amount he won on the PGA Tour. How about Tom Jenkins? He has seven victories and more than $11 million in earnings since joining the tour in 1998. David Edwards? After struggling on the PGA Tour in his 40s, Edwards won a seniors tournament less than four months after turning 50 in April 2006 and pocketed more than $1 million during the season. And John Harris? Who the heck is John Harris? The former well-regarded amateur turned pro to play the Champions Tour in 2002 and finally won his first event last season.
If you had heard of Brad Bryant, it's likely because of Gary McCord. McCord, the CBS golf commentator who was a struggling PGA Tour player himself in the 1970s, gave Bryant the nickname Dr. Dirt for his grinding practice regimen. And golf was very much a grind for Bryant as a PGA Tour player. Season after season he hung on to his spot on the Tour, sometimes having to return to the qualifying school. Through the late '70s, '80s and early '90s, Dr. Dirt tore up more earth without a PGA Tour victory than any player in history. Then, on his 475th attempt, he won the rain-shortened Walt Disney World/Oldsmobile Classic in 1995, setting a record for the number of tournaments played to gain a victory.
And that was it. Because of injuries, a factor throughout his career, Dr. Dirt retired after the 1999 season, trading in his sticks for a bass rod. "I was hurting really bad," says Bryant, sitting in the opulent locker room of the Sonoma Golf Club during the Charles Schwab Cup Championship last October. "I was nothing more than a walking Geritol commercial. My back was bad, my shoulders were bothering me, arthritis. Playing golf was absolutely no fun. I was completely worn down. I wasn't getting anywhere anyway, so it came time to stop playing, to at least let myself heal."
But Dr. Dirt didn't have a whole pile of cash lying around for an extended early retirement. "My financial guy says, 'I can take care of your family, but if you want to hunt, fish and smoke cigars all the time, you are going to have to earn it,'" says Dr. Dirt, who might have gotten his name simply for the non-designer-label golf apparel he prefers and a certain disheveled aspect.
When he was 45, Bryant wasn't really considering playing the Champions Tour. When he was 49, that prospect looked a whole lot better and he earned a spot for the 2005 season through the qualifying school. His golf life began again, at 50. And, like most of his career, it was for the money. "The only reason at all I played golf into the 1990s was for the money," says Bryant. "When I finally won, it was exciting, but maybe not as exciting as you might think. It was a relief, really, and I made the most money I ever did on tour that year, so paying the bills wasn't so tough. You come out on tour to make money and maybe find a little glory. For me, there wasn't any glory. I just needed to make some money."
Boy did he ever, after he turned 50. He earned more than $700,000 his rookie season, then won twice and took in nearly $1.7 million in 2006. Dr. Dirt had finally struck Pay Dirt. That allows him to think about retirement again, of long days bass fishing near his home in Lakeland, Florida, and smoking a few cigars to keep the bugs away. "I thought I could have four or five good years and then I could quit," says Bryant. "I am right on track with that. In a couple of years I can go away."
Though Bryant's words can sound as if he is completely negative about the game, he evinces a lively personality, an engaging sense of humor and a down-home honesty that's downright beguiling. He wouldn't want you to think he's not enjoying tour life right now, because it's providing him with the means to an end—to a better bass boat, better cigars and even some attractive shirts.
David Edwards seems to be Bryant's polar opposite. Edwards is decidedly reserved and seems reticent to talk about the game. His play is so steady, it can be mind-numbing. Last year on the Champions Tour, he won the 3M Championship and finished in the top 10 eight times, an especially impressive accomplishment considering he wasn't eligible for the tour until mid-April.
Edwards won four times on the PGA Tour, including the Walt Disney World National Team Championship in 1980, and the others were significant tournaments: the 1984 Los Angeles Open, the 1992 Memorial Tournament and the 1993 MCI Heritage Golf Classic. His ability to consistently hit fairways no wider than a cart path helped him overcome his lack of power off the tee. But as the courses got longer, the younger players got better, and as Edwards got older, it became difficult for him to compete, or even make the cut.
Driving the ball 260 doesn't get you to the ladies' tee on the PGA Tour anymore, but on the Champions Tour you might at least make the fairway cut. That's what Edwards has been doing with regularity since he joined the tour.
"It's more about competing to win now instead of trying to make the cut," says Edwards. "You get paid better, I've noticed."
The shorter courses of the Champions Tour play right into his hands. "I don't have the length of a lot of guys, but I've always hit it straight," says Edwards. "On the regular Tour I was giving up 40 to 50 yards a hole and that's pretty difficult to make up for. But out here it might only be 15 yards a hole, so I don't consider myself at that much of a disadvantage."
Like Bryant, Edwards quit playing Tour golf at age 45, needing a couple of years off to right himself after losing his card. He gave up his twin-engine Cessna 340, which he had been flying to tournaments, and his minor involvement in auto racing. He played some local tournaments, then tried to get back on the PGA Tour, though he had to rely on sponsor exemptions to do so. "I wasn't good enough," says Edwards with a mixture of melancholy and amusement.
During his time off, Edwards tried to make it in the real world, becoming involved in a car dealership. "That didn't work well for me," he says. "I had to go back to work."
Except that getting a job on the PGA Tour isn't automatic, even for a past champion. Edwards went to Tour qualifying and didn't make it. His only option was playing against the youngsters on the Nationwide Tour, who were all hungry, talented and strong. "I was in no man's land," says Edwards.
He drifted until 2006 when he became eligible for the Champions Tour, a tour he had once said he would not play. He's brutally honest about the game even after a season of success, and his quiet, candid words speak loudly. "Early on I said I wouldn't play the Senior Tour," says Edwards. "Golf isn't the major goal of my life. Being a father and husband is. If I had made more money on the regular tour, I wouldn't be out here.
"I liked flying my airplane. I liked racing those little cars. I liked motorcycles. I like being with my family. When I took a week off from playing, I wanted to take two weeks. That's just the way golf is for me," says Edwards. "Of course, when you are winning, competing, cashing a nice check every week, it's easy to keep on doing it. But I don't foresee doing it for 10 years. A good four or five years out here is probably enough."
He wouldn't want to be too successful, though. "I'd like to play better but not a lot better," says Edwards. "I don't need the attention."
For John Harris, playing Champions Tour golf for the rest of his competitive life will be just fine, the fulfillment of a dream he harbored, then abandoned in his 20s. Lots of Minnesotans knew Harris when he was one of the top players on Herb Brooks's University of Minnesota hockey team that won the NCAA championship in 1974. He briefly played minor-league hockey before deciding to give professional golf a try. He had played golf at Minnesota as well, and the same year the Golden Gophers won the NCAA title in hockey, Harris was first-team All-American as a golfer. That pedigree didn't translate into a successful PGA Tour career.
"I just couldn't get my game to the level that it needed to be to play the PGA Tour," says Harris. "I lost confidence before I gained experience, and that wasn't good. You need both to be able to compete at that level."
So Harris gave up professional golf and started his own company, Harris-Homeyer Insurance, along with a college friend. He was successful in business and, after getting his amateur status back, became very successful as a player. He was the dominant player in Minnesota for two decades and won the U.S. Amateur in 1993. He was a four-time member of the U.S. Walker Cup team.
For winning the U.S. Amateur, Harris earned an invitation to the Masters. Not long after, for his success as a businessman, a community leader and an amateur golfer, Harris was invited to join the Augusta National Golf Club. It is an honor accorded to few men, and for nearly anyone a capper on a very impressive résumé.
But Harris felt there was something still lacking. "I knew my days competing at a high level as an amateur player were numbered," he says. "They were all too young and too good for me to consistently compete against."
He liked the adrenaline rush he got from competitive golf. There was a place he could still find it: the Champions Tour. Harris talked with Allen Doyle and Jay Siegel, former amateurs who made it big after turning pro, and got the encouragement he was looking for. He qualified for the tour in 2002, and the adrenaline started to flow, maybe too fast. Harris played well, but not quite well enough to keep his card. He kept going back to Q school and retrieving it. Finally, at the Commerce Bank Championship last summer, he broke through for a victory and a guaranteed spot on the tour for 2007.
"There is a thing as trying too hard and I was probably guilty of that," says Harris. "Sometimes you just have to get out of your own way. I managed to do that when I won. [In this sport] the highs are higher and the lows are lower. I like to test myself."
The test of golf wore out Tom Jenkins in the middle '80s. Jenkins had been a star at the University of Houston and qualified for the PGA Tour, winning a tournament in Philadelphia in 1975 by edging Johnny Miller. It was not a harbinger of great success. Jenkins struggled to make cuts and make a living over the next 10 years, and in 1986 he left the Tour to teach short-game technique with guru Dave Pelz. Eventually he started his own short-game school. Because of tendonitis in both elbows, he didn't play much competitive golf anymore, but being a short-game whiz would eventually pay off big for him.
"So much of your success in this game relates to your ability to score, to putt and chip and play sand shots and pitches," says Jenkins. "That was something I was doing for years before it came time to try to [qualify] for the Senior Tour. So even though I wasn't playing much competitive golf, I was very involved in that part of the game that can make you a success."
Still, he wasn't sure that the Champions Tour would ever be in his future. The tendonitis was painful and debilitating. Then in the summer of 1997, shortly before his 50th birthday that December, Jenkins woke up one morning and the pain was all gone. Attending the tour qualifying school was a certainty, and after an opening round of 76, his short game kicked in and he finished 10th, good enough for a conditional card, good enough to launch a substantial career.
The trials weren't over quite yet. "About two weeks before I went to my first Monday qualifier in Miami in 1998, I had some soft tissue sarcoma removed from my forehead," says Jenkins. "They took all my forehead off, the soft tissue. I told the surgeon, 'When you go in there, if you see anything that is detrimental to my golf game, take it out too.' After the surgery he said, 'Man, you couldn't believe all the three-putt cells I found in there. I removed them all.' I owe it all to my plastic surgeon who took all that crap out of my forehead."
Jenkins has flown under the radar and over his expectations for the last nine seasons, winning seven times through the end of 2006 and piling up 97 top-10 finishes. He's chalked up more than $11 million. He's had a fair amount of success.
"What do you mean, 'fair amount'?" says Jenkins, jovially challenging that assertion. "I'd say it's more than fair. I'd say it's pretty darn good. I've really exceeded my expectations of what I could do out here, but as I got comfortable playing against these guys, I realized I belonged. It's really been great."
Jeff Williams is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.
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