Check out the top 10 shots of all time on the Champions Tour (excluding majors), featuring players like Chi Chi Rodriguez, Fuzzy Zoeller, Lee Trevino, Hale Irwin and Jack Nicklaus.
Don January won the first Champions Tour event in 1980. Seventeen years later, Hale Irwin became the tour’s 500th winner at the 1997 Burnet Senior Classic.
This week, 16 years after Irwin’s milestone win at the Burnet Senior Classic, the Champions Tour will crown its 1,000th winner at the Dick’s Sporting Goods Open.
“I really think it says a lot about the Champions Tour, to the longevity it’s had and the foresight those players had back in the '80s to think this might be a viable option for players 50 and over,” Jay Haas said. “It will be a great champion whoever it is and I hope I have a chance.”
Perspective is the lifeblood of athletic achievements and it speaks to the significance of having 1,000 winners in the 33 years since the inception of the Champions Tour. The record for most touchdown passes in a NFL career is 508, by Brett Favre. The record for the most home runs is 762, by Barry Bonds. Wayne Gretzky holds the mark for most goals in a National Hockey League career with 894. All are revered milestones in sports.
Now the Champions Tour is on the brink of determining its 1,000th winner. But what is in store for golf’s senior circuit beyond this week? Who will be the 1,500th winner – and when will it happen? History tells us the span will be somewhere in that 16-, 17-year range.
January was 51 when he won the Atlantic City Senior International in 1980. Irwin was 51 in 1997 when he won the Brunet Senior Classic.
Luke Donald and Robert Garrigus are 35. They will be 51 in 16 years. Jason Dufner, Ben Curtis and Paul Casey will be 52. Will one of those PGA TOUR stars become the 1,500th winner? And will it be 2029 or 2030 or 2031?
Mike Stevens, president of the Champions Tour, doesn’t have the answers but he knows it’s going to happen and he has an image of what the tour will look like over the next couple of decades.
“It’s probably going to be the way it is,” Stevens said. “We’ve learned from experience what the correct number of events is, learned through experience what’s the fair eligibility. We’ve had 30 years of adjusting and tweaking, and it’s been pretty much the same now for a long, long time.
“My crystal ball isn’t as clear as some others. I don’t think from an eligibility perspective there will be that many changes going forward. Some have said we should have a cut. I’m not of that opinion just yet.”
There have been other areas of dramatic change on the Champions Tour since 1980. The area of equipment – the ball, clubs and course maintenance – is one of the items at the top of the list.
“Now most of those things are regulated and legislated, except for the ball,” Stevens said. “At some point in time, it’s probably going to happen (with the ball) but maybe not.”
On the Champions Tour, significant changes have occurred in 33 years in the areas of parity and depth of field, and the physical condition of the golfers.
“At the start, there were really only 10, 15 guys that were going to win,” Stevens said. “When you look at the health factor, there was no fitness trailer back then. It was that way until up into the ‘90s.”
And because golf can take a toll on the body, the window of opportunity was narrowed.
“If you didn’t make your mark at 50 or by the time you reached 53, 54, you weren’t going to be successful,” Stevens said. “That’s not the case anymore and that’s because of fitness. The guys are just in better shape … there are fewer injuries and careers are sustained longer.
“Having the ability on a daily basis to go in prior to your round and have an expert stretch you out and go in immediately after your round to receive what treatment you might need, whether it’s ice or electric stim, every single day for treatment from an expert. It’s maintaining flexibility. If you can do the stretches and stay flexible and allow that swing to get back to where it’s supposed to be and remain somewhat nimble it is a huge advantage.”
If a player had a hip problem or needed knee replacement in the early days of the Champions Tour, he was probably done as a competitive force. Now, recovery from those sorts of surgeries is accelerated by advancements in modern medicine.
The Champions Tour is responsible for the desire to continue playing. The players know that if they keep in shape, if they deal with injuries properly, they can remain active and take advantage of the financial rewards.
The best example of that is Irwin, the all-time winningest member of the Champions Tour. Irwin has won 45 events, including the Brunet Senior Classic, beginning with the Ameritech Senior Open in 1995 just days after his 50th birthday. Irwin has won more than $26 million on the Champions Tour in 18 seasons.
“When I turned 50 it was probably the best birthday I had,” said Dave Stockton, a winner of 14 Champions Tour events from 1992-97. “To be playing on a competitive tour in my 50s and then on into my 60s, you've created something and given back to the game. That's the reason a lot of us did it. Sure it's about wins, but you come out and you see some of the older guys like Miller Barber, who we just lost, or a Don January.
“I'm getting up in that upper edge now like Palmer, Nicklaus, Player and so on, who all supported it. What are we supporting? We're supporting our love of the game of golf. So for the Champions Tour to be coming up on a thousand … that’s a thousand (times) that we pleased the golfing public, that we raised funds for charity in each spot and it gave us a thousand times we could be together as competitors and friends."
In the early days, the Champions Tour consisted of 50 players, give or take, and it was often a challenge to put a field together and qualifiers were among club professionals.
In many instances, a player’s career topped off in the mid-40s. The ability to compete was diminished and it was necessary to contemplate future career opportunities rather than playing options. Instead of tournament golf for the 40-somethings, there were corporate outings.
Now those players continue to compete with an eye on a successful and rewarding transition to the Champions Tour.
There was a day when the Champions Tour was played on courses that were described as driver/wedge layouts. They’re not hitting driver/wedge much these days. The average course on the Champions Tour is 7,100 yards, only about 200 yards less than the PGA TOUR, Stevens said.
And, that, Johnny Miller believes, is at the core of the success.
“The Champions Tour is successful because these guys can really play,” Miller said. “They're shooting really low scores like Kenny Perry playing so great at the U.S. Senior Open. Plus, people like to see players they know and have watched since maybe they were young. A lot of the viewers are my age, maybe 50 to 80 years old and they have time to watch TV and they like to watch these guys and see how they can really play and hit the ball still. It's a great format and I think it's here to stay.”
January went on to win 21 more events on the Championship and the money title three times. He was one of the original members.
“When we started all of this we just kind of felt like we still wanted to compete and play but there really wasn’t a place for us,” January said.
“We thought we had a product to sell but we didn’t know how the market was and not any of us ever dreamed it would be what it is today.”
And nobody can imagine – or even come close to it – of knowing what it will be like when somebody someday becomes the 2000th winner on the Champions Tour.