Vaught's Views: Weibring likes way fans embrace senior players

May 26, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

LOUISVILLE - It doesn't surprise D.A. Weibring that golf fans seem to embrace championship golf here.

He grew up in Quincy, Ill., and sees similarities between sports fans there and those who come to Valhalla Golf Club here for the 66th Senior PGA Championship that starts Thursday.

"In our state, a little bit like Indiana and Kentucky, it's kind of basketball and golf," said Weibring after Tuesday's practice round. "It's a wonderful mix. They really love their golf in these areas."

That was obvious when the PGA Championship was played here twice before, including 1996 when Weibring tied for 17th thanks to a final round 67. He's also coming off a win in last week's Allianz Championship and has finished in the top 10 in seven of 11 tournaments he's played this year.


It's no wonder that his 51st birthday wish Tuesday was a simple one - his first major championship - after he received a surprise birthday cake complete with candles following his media room appearance.

"That was an easy wish," Weibring said after blowing out the candles.

Actually, it must be the wish of many golf fans that the PGA keeps picking Valhalla for national championships because it provides a chance to see the world's best players in person.

"I remember this golf course, but I also remember the enthusiasm of the golf fans in this area," Weibring said as he talked about his 1996 play here. "I remember very clearly how they embraced us."

There's something special about smaller venues

He knows the success of Fuzzy Zoeller, who lives just across the Ohio River in Indiana, helped promote interest in professional golf in this area. But he also thinks there is something special about coming to smaller venues, especially for the Champions Tour that has players ages 50 and up.

Weibring thinks cities like Birmingham and Austin, Texas, welcome the senior tour with open arms. So do Grand Rapids, Mich., and Des Moines, Iowa. Like Louisville, those cities have no major sports teams and are more excited to see some of golf's all-time best players come to town.

However, he thinks players are just as appreciative of the opportunities they have to play - or should be.

"I do think that guys out here 50 and over, we all need to realize that No. 1, we're 50-plus and we have the opportunity to still compete in our sport," Weibring said. "I think every morning as we get out of bed we need to hit our knee (on the floor) and say thank you to have the opportunity to do that."

Weibring says the Champions Tour is more fan-friendly than the PGA Tour because it is not as competitive. Older players have made their mark and mostly secured their financial future, unlike players on the regular tour that are still battling to make a name for themselves.

"I think our interaction makes it more fun," Weibring said.

Watching Tuesday's practice round, it would be hard to argue. Players were all stopping not only to sign autographs for fans of all ages - and it seemed like each player carried his own autograph pen - but also to answer questions or just converse with those who had come to watch them practice.

Field includes Palmer, Nicklaus and Player

The 156-player field features 24 major champions who have combined for 75 major titles. That includes golf's legendary "big three" of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.

Player was one of those out early Tuesday - and he was one of the most entertaining. He pumped his fists to the crowd after good shots. He joked with fans between shots. He signed autographs on the way to almost every tee.

"If you can't have fun, why be here?" Player, 68, asked as he prepared to pursue his fourth Senior PGA Championship.

Spectators obviously felt the same way. Two fans who made their way to Valhalla Golf Club Tuesday were Danville's Richie Lyons and Jeff Joiner.

"We had a chance to get away and watch, so we took it," Lyons said.

Then there was David Vitale, who just completed his freshman year at Centre College last week. He's not a big golf fan, but he had a job helping supervise parking. That also let him see many of the tournament's players as they arrived and departed.

However, don't doubt that this tournament is serious business. The players might be old, but they can still play. Watching veteran Jim Thorpe hit chip shot after chip shot within inches of each other helped show just how good these players can be. And Thorpe went right back to the practice range after playing nine holes to iron out more flaws in his game.

"This tour has wonderful competition," Bruce Fleisher, who has six top 10 finishes in 11 tournaments this year, said. "As a baby boomer, certainly I can understand the name following out here that I think is strong, very strong. But to finish in the top five or top 10 is difficult. You have to play golf because these guys are still very, very good."

And that just makes being around them even more fun.

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