Friday, September 2, 2011

Don January Recalls origin of PGA Tour in Atlantic City

Stan Badz/PGA TOUR

Don January laughs during the 2001 Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf.
Jun. 22, 2010 |

By Vartan Kupelian, PGATOUR.COM Contributor

The memories of that first Senior Tour event have dimmed for Don January.

What hasn't faded during the intervening three decades is how much fun it was, from putting together the building blocks of something that would grow and flourish to making the key swings and putts down the stretch.

The 30th anniversary of the first Senior Tour event in Atlantic City, won by January, is Tuesday (June 22).

"That's a few years ago," said January, who won the first title. "No doubt about it, it has changed."

The Senior Tour was conceived in 1980 by a gang of six. It began with four events and purses totaling $475,000. Today, the circuit for golfers over age 50 has grown to 26 official events offering $51.5 million in official prize money. The average purse is just under $2 million.

Renamed the Champions Tour in 2002, its mission statement is to provide a competitive environment for those who are ready to embark on the next phase of their professional careers. The phrase "competitive environment" is the operative term. That's not how it was in 1980.

"Julie (Boros) put it best," January said. "He said, 'I don't care where we play or how much we play for - just get me out of the house."

January, Boros, Bob Goalby, Sam Snead, Dan Sykes and Gardner Dickinson were the shakers behind the movement.

Goalby vividly remembers elements of the January, 1980, meeting at Jacksonville International Airport that led to the first Senior Tour event. PGA TOUR

Commissioner Deane Beman was there.

The goal was a casual 10-event circuit.

"I don't think Deane thought there was any chance of doing much," Goalby said. "Money spent on senior golf wouldn't make the regular tour guys too happy.

"Julius was a slow-talking guy, easy-going, never in a hurry. He made that great comment. He had a bunch of kids and grandkids at home, he kind of liked the tour, the quiet life. Back home, there were 10 people in the house."

Goalby, Mike Souchak and January played together in the last round at Atlantic City. On the first hole, a par 5, Goalby reached the green in two shots and had a 12-foot eagle putt. He got it halfway to the hole.

"I hadn't played in a while," Goalby said. "It was embarrassing but I made the putt for birdie."

It isn't difficult for Goalby to prioritize the reasons why the Senior Tour succeeded. It was about playing in places that hadn't seen professional golf and embraced the idea and the men they knew from a distance but never before had an opportunity to see in person.

But a bigger reason, in Goalby's opinion, was the effort that was put into it by the golfers.
"Snead was our catalyst," Goalby said. "He played in every tournament the first three, four years, went to every clinic, did everything he could for us. We had three, four parties a week and all the players went to the pro-am draw.

"We had been put out to pasture and we knew the only way to make it work was to help sell it."
And sell they did.

"It took off because we paid the price," said Goalby, who served 16 years on the Senior Tour board. "Snead said it was more fun than anything he had done in his life. It was very exciting and a lot of fun. A lot of us had to quit the regular tour when we were 40, couldn't afford to hang on like you can today when you make $12,000 a week at the bottom.

"It was a chance for us to keep playing and we were hungry, it was a chance to compete. I remember Billy Caspersaying he was happy to show people we were better people the second time around."

Brian Henning came aboard in 1981 as administrator of the Senior Tour.

"My job was to go out and find sponsors to put up $125,000 and that's basically what I did," said Henning, who spent 22 years in the role. "Our goal was to get about 10 events to get the senior players in those days out of the house for a couple of weeks every year and that was basically it.
"Suddenly, everything just went wild."

The wildfire spread word of mouth. The deal was too good to pass up.

"I was able to go into cities and guarantee 50 of the best senior players in America, the world if you like, who would play in the pro-am," Henning said. "Sam Snead, Julius Boros, Bob Goalby, Arnold Palmer. We entertained them at their parties and they had a lot of fun. Word spread. Next thing I was getting calls from all over the country."

In 1983, Henning's title was changed to Vice President/Senior Tour Field Operations and eventually Vice President/Competitions. He retired in 2001.

Goalby has fond recollections of Henning.

"He was very instrumental," Goalby said. "He did a great job for us. He was the front man, did a lot of PR for us. He was very good."

Some components of the Senior Tour that Goalby, January and the others envisioned no doubt were whimsical.

"More or less, it was a reunion for us," said January, whose 22 victories is tied for sixth most all-time with Chi Chi Rodriguez. "We figured there might be a market out there for us, why not take a shot at it.

"We were trying to give back to the sponsor a little better deal than they had been getting and corporate America embraced us. I had a ball. It was a lot of work but we didn't mind doing that.

"None of us realized it would come to what it did. We always thought we had a good product but none of us had any idea it would get this big."

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