This is a fact: If you are a senior amateur in America with game, over the age of 55 and low single digits on your index card, you could play in a competitive senior amateur golf tournament every week of the year. OK, so I exaggerate. There is no such event between Christmas and New Year’s. But the other 51 weeks of the year? Grab your clubs and put a peg in the ground.
For this wonderful situation, we have visionaries Dale Morey, Ed Tutwiler, and Ralph Bogart to thank. And Arnold Palmer, too. But more about him later.
It was 1982 when these three decorated career amateurs got together at the old Wild Dunes Invitational to create the “Society of Seniors.” Before there was such a thing as social media, they enlisted the participation of guys their age whom they had competed with over the years, often times dating back to junior golf. Their vision was competitive amateur golf for men who had played at a high level for most of their lives. Relatively inexpensive golf, good venues and little planned social activity were key to their success. So too was scratch golf – no strokes were to be given or taken. This was their business model, and it has worked well for more than 25 years.
So well that today the society has 850 members, including more than a dozen from outside the U.S. The membership roster includes numerous USGA champions and Walker Cup veterans. The seven tournaments it currently runs (one for Super Seniors, age 65-plus, and one for Grand Masters, age 75-plus) are among the most important on the senior circuit.
You have to have a career resume to gain admittance. Points are awarded for various amateur accomplishments, and winning your club championship, no matter how often, is not going to be looked upon fondly. USGA appearances, major state or regional achievements, impressive performance over the years at events like the Crump Cup, Coleman Invitational and Stocker Cup…this is the currency the admissions committee is looking for. In other words, you gotta have game. You also need to be 55 and have a member sponsor you.
As for Palmer? Well, it didn’t hurt that he turned 50 in 1979 and helped kick-start what is now called the Champions Tour. Looking to rejuvenate the Senior Open, the USGA lowered the age requirement from 55 to 50. This is widely but unofficially known as the “Palmer Rule.” As he did once before in his life, Palmer inspired dramatic growth in the game of golf. This time, he motivated a bunch of older guys to get in shape and remain competitive past their 50th birthday.
There is a changing of the guard taking place this year at the Society, with Yancey Ford stepping down as president after seven years of service. Former Sports Illustrated Editor Mark Mulvoy is succeeding him, becoming just the fourth president in the history of this 26-year-old organization. The Society will continue to be ably served by Executive Director John Harrigan.
Harrigan, a Minnesota lawyer who joined the Society in 1987 and became ED in 1999, deserves a great deal of credit for guiding the SOS for the last 10 years. It was he who organized the tournaments, communicated with the growing membership before there was e-mail and web sites, and otherwise kept the group on a mission. He has graciously agreed to stay on for another year or so, before he hits the Super Senior ranks and regains his competitive form.
The model for the Society of Seniors is one that could work around the world. All it takes is a few skilled players of a certain age and a heavy dose of perseverance. It is somewhat surprising to me that no such comparable organization exists in the women’s amateur game. The creation of something like a female SOS would surely cause women who once played well to head to the practice tee to reclaim the skills they once enjoyed. And in the current economic environment in golf, there are all too many facilities that would welcome the tournaments, and do whatever they could to create a positive competitive experience. Women could even modify the model, offering a lower minimum age…say 45 or 50.
It has been said that golf is a game for a lifetime. The Society of Seniors is living proof that this is true, not just a player-development catch phrase. Here’s hoping that others around the game take the Morey/Tutwiler/Bogart vision and run with it.
Arnold Palmer would approve as well.