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Champions Tour still strong after 25 years

PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem has been trying to bring it to your attention for a while now.

The first sign came a few years ago, when he changed the name from the "Senior PGA Tour" to the "Champions Tour."

Ahh, yes ... much more powerful, don't you think?

And just in case that wasn't enough, Finchem recently went on to spare no expense (sorry, cheap shot) by hiring actor John C. McGinley -- of television sitcom "Scrubs" fame -- to occasionally appear in Champions Tour commercials during weekend PGA Tour telecasts.

Hey let's face it, if McGinley's over-dramatic rants on the thrilling "battles" waged by the game's over-50 "warriors" don't get you to tune in, nothing will, right? (Sorry, another cheap shot).

Either way, the point is that Finchem is trying. And that's something for which Fuzzy Zoeller and the rest of his colleagues on the PGA Tour's senior circuit can't fault Finchem for a second. Especially because they, more than anyone, know first-hand how good the product is, and that The Commish isn't just blowing smoke.

"(The Champions Tour) is beautiful," Zoeller said last Monday at Meadia Heights Golf Club, where he was the featured guest at the Intelligencer Printing Company's Intell Open, a fundraiser to help the Eden Fire Co. buy a new, state-of-the-art fire truck.

"It's a little more laid back, but it's still very, very competitive. Trust me, those old guys can still play."

Now in his third season on the senior circuit, Zoeller -- the 1979 Masters champion a 10-time PGA Tour winner -- has been reminded of that fact repeatedly.

Sure, he did jump out of the gate in his "rookie season" in 2002 by winning the Senior PGA Championship -- the second major of his career -- but he's only won once (2004 MasterCard Championship) since.

In fact, after a 2004 season in which Zoeller notched four top-10 finishes and 11 top-25s in 21 events, leaving him 23rd on the season-ending money list with $787,838, the road got a bit tougher this year.

After collecting just his third top-25 in 18 events with his tied-for-25th finish at the Administaff Small Business Classic over the weekend, Zoeller -- whose best finish this year was a tie for third at the Blue Angels Classic back in May -- is 58th on the Champions Tour money list with $253, 076.

"It's amazing because you would think the guys who have turned 50 have lost a little bit in their game, but it really doesn't hold true," Zoeller said.

"It opened my eyes. I mean, I swallowed a bunch of humble pie my first couple of weeks out there. I said 'You old guys can't be this good.' But when you play with them and you watch them it's amazing. They haven't lost a step."

All of which brings us back to what Finchem has been trying to sell so desperately to golf fans as the Champions Tour celebrates its 25th anniversary.

Basically nothing more than a novelty tour when it began, a series of strong "rookie classes" over the last few years -- which have included Ben Crenshaw, Tom Kite, Craig Stadler, Peter Jacobsen, Lanny Wadkins, Jay Haas, Scott Simpson, D.A. Weibring and Bruce Lietzke, to name a few -- have changed all that.

Add to the mix a handful of accomplished Champions Tour veterans who refuse to just fade off into the sunset -- a.k.a Hale Irwin (age 60), Jim Thorpe (56) and Bruce Fleisher (55) -- and winning on the senior circuit suddenly isn't that easy.

"It used to be you run hard (successfully) for five years on the Champions Tour, but I think that bar has been moved up," Zoeller said. "I think Hale Irwin has moved that bar up to almost 60 now. I mean, he's played better golf the last five years than he's ever played in his life."

Then again, candid and open as usual Monday, Zoeller can also understand why the Champions Tour hasn't attracted a bigger following.

Competitive or not, Zoeller said, he and his colleagues realize their time on the big stage is history, and they're OK with that. Even if the marketing-minded Finchem isn't.

"We have our niche and we're happy with our little niche," said Zoeller, 53. "We're only on the big major networks three times a year and the rest of the time we're on the GolfChannel or ESPN, which is where we should be. The big major networks are for the PGA Tour."

Honestly ... given a choice, which head-to-head battle would you rather watch: Tiger vs. Vijay or Irwin vs. Weibring? Think about it.

"The cast of characters are the ones who make it," said Zoeller, citing the playoff between Tiger Woods and John Daly at the American Express Championship two weeks ago.

"That battle with Johnny and Tiger was outstanding. I mean, if you couldn't get fired up about that, you couldn't get fired up about anything."

And as long as golf fans are, Zoeller said, the senior tour is exactly where it should be.

Pardon, the "Champions Tour."

"The only one who is going to (yell) at you about that would be Commissioner Finchem," Zoeller said with a laugh. "But hell, when you turn 50 you're a senior, for God's sake.

"When you get your coffee at McDonald's free "¦ you're a senior."

And at this stage in Zoeller's life, there isn't a single thing wrong with that.

October 18, 2005

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