How much would you pay to see former NBA players in their 60s play full-court five on five? Would you set the DVR to record regularly scheduled football games featuring former NFL players between the ages of 50 and 70?
Asked about the possibility, former University of Colorado football star Hale Irwin laughed. “That’s true. I’d hate to see the hundred-meter dash. It might take all morning,” he said.
You might know Irwin from his other sports career in professional golf. On Jan. 22, 1980, the PGA’s Tournament Policy Board held a vote that created the Senior PGA Tour, a showcase for pro golfers over the age of 50.
“But it was a big mystery because what was it going to be?” Irwin said.
Irwin didn’t know it then — he was just 35 at the time — but more than a decade later that vote would have a huge effect on his career.
Boros, Bolt And Snead
The idea for a senior tour began with the success of a 1979 made-for-TV tournament featuring older players called "The Legends of Golf." Bob Goalby, who won the 1968 Masters, said the event's six-hole, sudden-death playoff got a lot of attention.
“A couple people would say to us, ‘Boy, they can really play good and I thought they were all dead.'"Bob Goalby, former Senior PGA Tour player
Goalby served on the committee that designed the new tour and later sat on the tour's board for 16 years.
“I always thought it would succeed, but never to the extent that it has."
In 1980, the Senior PGA Tour made its debut. The first season featured four tournaments.
“But the big thing was we had Boros and Bolt and Snead," Goalby said. "Without Snead we wouldn’t have got goin'.”
That’s Julius Boros, Tommy Bolt, and Sam Snead. Snead’s 82 career wins are still the most in PGA Tour history. In 1980, he was 67 — and 15 years removed from his last win — but he was a giant of the game. And an even bigger name would follow a year later: Arnold Palmer.
The PGA Tour Commissioner at the time was Deane Beman, who also played a big part in the creation of the senior tour. He says some younger players on the regular tour were less than thrilled about the Senior Tour’s strong start.
“It took a couple of years, but once [the senior tour] got some momentum, there was some concern on those players that it might be competition for the regular tour.”
The senior tour gave the PGA’s former stars a chance to get back on top. Chi Chi Rodriguez hadn’t won a tournament on the PGA Tour since 1979, but playing with the seniors in 1986, he found his touch. Rodriguez posted three victories that year and earned Senior PGA Tour Rookie of the Year honor as he was turning 51.
Making More Green On The Greens
For Rodriguez and his contemporaries, there was a lot less money at stake in their heyday than there was when they reached the senior tour.
“The first four tournaments I won, I won $2,000 for first place, so I won $8,000 winning four tournaments. Today the guys would throw up with that kind of money," Goalby said. "So you couldn't hang around if you weren't one of the superstars.”
The senior tour changed that. Today there are about two dozen Champions Tour events a year and purses have grown exponentially. Despite those changes, golf is facing some tough challenges. TV ratings and amateur participation are down.
[sidebar title="Augusta's Pimento Cheese Sandwich Controversy" align="right"]Augusta National made another change in 2013. ESPN's Wright Thompson told us about the new pimento cheese sandwich recipe at the Masters.[/sidebar]But on Tuesday, the Champions Tour announced a 20-year sponsorship agreement with Charles Schwab. The investment firm already sponsors the Charles Schwab Cup, the tour’s points ranking competition.
For some perspective on the deal, I turned to Whitney Wagoner, program manager of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. Wagoner spent nearly eight years selling sponsorships for another pretty well-known sports organization: the NFL.
Asked if the length of the deal surprised her, Wagoner said, "Defintely, yes. We see shorter-term deals. Four, five years really is what the industry is seeing right now in terms of traditional sponsorships, so for Charles Schwab, frankly, to have as much confidence in this partnership as this shows, I think is really noteworthy."
Wagoner noted that there are financial risks in long-term sponsorships, but she believes this deal is based on a unique opportunity:
“For customers of Charles Schwab to really see themselves in the guys that are out there on the course," she said. "That's one of the things that golf as a property can provide. And it's a spot-on demographic match for your product? It’s really perfect."
[Golf] Life After 50
Fans might also be able to relate to struggling pros who found a second chance after 50.
Michael Allen had exactly zero wins in more than two decades on the regular tour. But since 2009, he’s recorded seven on the Champions Tour. For him the first was the sweetest.
“Oh, gosh. That kind of, it was incredible, you know? And then finally to see guys actually congratulate me on something like that, it was really cool. It was wonderful," Allen said. "Then you kind of get used to it a little bit, and it just gets to be more and more fun."
Hale Irwin has had plenty of fun since joining the Champions Tour in the mid-1990s and racking up a record 45 wins. In three decades on the regular tour, Irwin earned 20 career victories, and almost $6 million. Not too shabby, but on the Champions Tour, he’s taken home nearly $27 million in purses.
Although today’s younger players make more money than ever, Irwin’s optimistic stars will still join the senior circuit.
“That competitive fire is hard to put out. Even if you throw water on it, it still wants to rekindle itself," Irwin said. "The mental part of golf is the biggest part of the game and that's the same way when you're away from it. Do you love it enough, do you enjoy it enough, does it drive you enough to say, 'I still want to play'"?
As the Champions Tour turns 35, the PGA is counting on that drive and hoping the tour and its senior players will only get better with age.
More Sports History From Only A Game:
This segment aired on January 24, 2015.