Reasons To Like Champions Tour

Bobby Curran
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Friday - January 27, 2006
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Walk the fairways of a PGA event and you can feel the tension among the players. Young lions desperate to establish their identities, grizzled veterans striving to add to their fame and fortune, packed galleries straining for a glimpse of their favorite stars, and marshals busily imploring for quiet.

It is deadly in earnest, and when I’ve been greenside at the Sony Open in Waialae, I feel like I’m in church.

Not at all like the atmosphere at the MasterCard Champions Tour event at Hualalai last Friday. If the PGA events are like visiting a cathedral, the Champions tour seems more like, well, a day at the beach. I watched a number of players on the 17th and 18th holes last week amiably chatting with the sparse galleries and submitting to on-course interviews while they strolled up the fairways.

You got a strong impression of players being relaxed. There are a number of reasons for this. The vast majority of Champions Tour players are already secure in their golfing identities. With a qualifying age of 50 to be eligible to play, they are at least in the autumn of their professional careers. And they act like they’ve been there before.

“Don’t mistake the casual attitude for a lack of competitiveness,” says Champions Tour media liaison Phil Stambaugh. “When they get to the first tee, they are just as focused and driven as ever. The difference is that these guys have been playing together so long, when the round is over they socialize and may go out to dinner. They’re easygoing after the golf is done.”

But what about the interaction with the fans during the round?

“Well, being fan-friendly is our philosophy,” says Stambaugh. “It’s part of what makes us different.”

I decided to head to the press-room for one post-round interview. The only player I’d ever spoken to in person before was Loren Roberts, who had agreed to sit down with me at a remote broadcast following an opening round at the Sony when we were set up at the Kahala Mandarin a number of years ago. At that time, we chatted for 10-15 minutes on-air, and he was extraordinarily gracious.

He had just become the first round co-leader at Hualalai last Friday. The pressroom had about 12 chairs in front of a small podium, but only four of them were occupied, which would never be the case at a full field PGA event. Roberts walked in, sat down and we discussed his round.

“The course was defenseless today. There was no wind, and the greens were absolutely perfect,” said Roberts, known as the “Boss of the Moss” because of his putting prowess. “You knew there would be some low scores.”

I asked him about the difference between PGA and Champions Tour events. “The fields are smaller on the Champions Tour,” he said. “On the PGA, when young guys struggle, they take a long time over shots. One of the things I like best about the Champions Tour is the speed of the play. It really moves.”

After the group interview, I walked outside with Roberts, thanking him for the time he spent years ago, and he said he remembered. I must have looked doubtful and he correctly told me where we’d set up to broadcast. And he talked about how Hawaii was special to him.

“When I first got my card in 1981, I played well enough in San Diego to avoid Monday qualifying for the then-United Airlines Hawaiian Open,” said Roberts. “I was thrilled and have been coming ever since. Last year I was in the lead at the PGA stop in Mississippi and I kept thinking that this could mean four weeks in Hawaii instead of three.” He was alluding to the Mercedes, which invites each PGA winner from the previous year.

Just then, Tom Watson, also 9 under last Friday, walked up for his interview.

“Hey, Loren, you must have made a few putts,” Watson said with a smile.

“Just about as many as you,” Roberts replied with a laugh.

There it was - Loren Roberts, Tom Watson and me having a few grins. The Champions Tour is different!

You can catch all the relaxed atmosphere this weekend at the Turtle Bay Championship.

Home last Sunday, I cheered in front of the TV as Loren Roberts sank a 30-footer to win the Master Card at Hualalai, coming in with a sizzling 61.

Who says good guys finish last?

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