Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Senior golf debuted in Tampa Bay area 25 years ago

Dale Douglass knows he wasn't the one most Tampa Bay golf fans came to see when the Senior Tour first hit town in February 1988.

The tour, established eight years earlier, was still getting its footing. And the GTE Classic was being played on a course that opened only a few months earlier, Tampa Palms Country Club.

Fans were not only getting their first look at the course, but they were clamoring to get a glimpse of legends such as Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Lee Trevino, Chi Chi Rodriguez, Raymond Floyd, Al Geiberger and Billy Casper.

Dale Douglass? Not so much.

Douglass was a grinder on the PGA Tour. He won three times, the last at the 1970 Phoenix Open. He was coming off a winless 1987 Senior Tour season in which he finished second six times.

That second week of February 1988 changed Douglass and the local golf scene. He got off to a hot start and had a four-shot lead heading into the final round.

Despite a closing 74, Douglass held off Orville Moody by two shots and Player by three to win the inaugural event.

"Hard to believe that much time has gone by," Douglass, 76, said.

Douglass never won again in Tampa. The Senior Tour never left.

The tournament remained at Tampa Palms until 1992, when it moved to the sleeker, brand new TPC Tampa Bay in Lutz. It has boasted champions such as Jack Nicklaus, Larry Nelson, Hale Irwin, Jerry Pate and Tom Watson.

But Douglass will always be the first.

The tournament begins its 25th year in Tampa Bay on Friday. Through the years, it has shifted courses, changed to a pro-am format, moved to April and, once again this year, changed title sponsors.

When they were called seniors

The tour changed its name to the Champions Tour effective the 2003 season. But in 1988, it was the Senior Tour.

Each year, the tour added tournaments. What started as a way for pros 50 and older to have fun and compete against each other turned into a way to keep playing golf for a living.

"Our sport is the only one where you can have senior players and it's still interesting," Douglass said. "You can actually sell tickets to it. Just about all of the players are well known by golf fans. You can turn on the TV and know who those guys are.

"That's not really the case on the PGA Tour. There are so many wonderful players out (on the PGA Tour) that it's hard to stay on top."

Combined, nearly 60,000 people attended the five days of the GTE Classic in 1988. They got to see players from their past — even if their games weren't in top shape.

Douglass' game was in shape. He opened with 5-under 67, then backed that up with 69 on Saturday. That afforded him some breathing room as players charged on Sunday.

"Somebody asked me who I beat, and I said, 'I beat them all,' " Douglass said. "I wasn't aware of who was behind me that day. I knew that Arnold (Palmer) and Gary (Player) were playing very well.

"It was a fun week for me. Winning at Tampa Palms kind of released me and allowed me to go win some more."

Douglass earned $45,000 for the victory. This year's winner will pocket $240,000.

Douglass won 11 times on the Senior/Champions Tour. His last appearance in Tampa was the 2007 Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am, where he finished 73rd at 26 over.

Then and now

None of the players from that 1988 tournament are in the 2012 field. A new wave of former PGA players has taken the torch.

This is the 20th consecutive year the tournament has been played at TPC Tampa Bay, the longest span on the same course for a Champions Tour event. However, the streak could end if tournament officials don't find a title sponsor for next year's event by the fall of this year.

Douglass stopped playing full time on tour after the 2007 season. He lives in Phoenix and still plays about two to three times a week.

All totaled, he played in nearly 1,100 pro tournaments and won more than $7 million on the Champions Tour alone. He said he keeps up with the tour on television and likes watching the events he once won.

He also likes what the tour has become.

"You have more quality players now than when it started," Douglass said. "When it started in 1980, you had some guys who hadn't played tournament golf in 10 years or so. Now I think everybody has in their plans to go right onto the Champions Tour.

"Mentally, the games don't deteriorate because they have a plan to play when they are 50."

Rodney Page can be reached at [email protected]

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