Seeing golf's familiar faces is unquestionably the biggest lure of the Senior PGA Tour, and Tampa Bay area fans proved again Friday that they love to watch their old favorites.
Arnie, Chi Chi and Lee had their usual legion of fans during the first round of the GTE Suncoast Classic, but it was senior tour newcomer Kermit Zarley whose name was at the top of the leaderboard.
A record crowd came to the new TPC of Tampa Bay at Cheval, where the tournament moved after four years at Tampa Palms Golf & Country Club. Big galleries were the norm there, too, but with a golf course specifically designed for spectator viewing, the new course proved to be a plus.
"Unbelievable crowds," said Jim Colbert, who is tied for second, a shot behind Zarley. "I don't know if I've ever seen crowds this big on a Friday other than at the Masters or something. It was every hole, five or six or seven rows deep. It was terrific."
Attendance was announced at 32,315, which was about 8,000 more than the first-round crowd of a year ago at Tampa Palms. The tournament had as many or more people on Friday as it did during the weekend rounds last year.
And the fans had an easy time seeing the players, although those who watched Zarley take the lead had to be camped on the front nine. Tournament officials feared morning fog, so they divided the 78-player field in half and sent players off both the first and 10th tees. Zarley started on the back nine and finished with birdies at the eighth and ninth holes for a 6-under-par 65.
"You couldn't get better conditions," said Zarley, who turned 50 last fall and is playing in only his fourth senior event. "The fairways are just immaculate. When I came here Tuesday, I told my caddie that if the wind blows, this is not a senior course."
The wind didn't blow, and as a result, there were 32 players under par on the 6,638-yard, par-71 course. Only a shot behind Zarley at 5-under-par 66 are Colbert, defending champion Bob Charles, George Archer, Al Geiberger and Bobby Nichols.
Another shot back at 67 are Walt Zembriski, Sarasota's Dick Rhyan, Mike Joyce, Larry Mowry and Gene Littler, who leads the Vantage Classics, a 36-hole tournament for players in the field who are 60 and older.
Several of the followers are household names compared with Zarley, who won twice in his PGA Tour career but stopped playing full-time in 1982. After that, he played a satellite tour for a few seasons while dabbling in writing. He's had three books published, the latest called Palestine is Coming about the Arab-Israeli conflict.
He spent about 75 percent of his time writing and very little playing golf. "Since 1986, I never played in more than two tournaments a year," Zarley said. "I was a weekend golfer until last summer."
Then, he started looking forward to his 50th birthday, but after his first tournament last October, he pulled cartilage in his rib cage and had to take 10 weeks off. He wasn't able to even practice until Christmas.
He tied for 36th two weeks ago in Miami, and tied for 22nd last week in Naples. On Friday, he managed to play some of the toughest holes the best. After opening with a bogey at the 10th hole, he birdied the 14th, 15th, 16th and 18th , then made the turn and finished with birdies at Nos.
5, 8 and 9. The ninth is a 420-yard par-4, but Zarley knocked his 8-iron second shot 20 feet from the hole and drained the putt for his one-shot advantage.
"I felt like you needed to shoot a good score today because of the lack of wind," said Colbert, who was the senior tour's Rookie of the Year in 1991, winning three tournaments and $880,749. "We got a lot of help, but you still have to drive the ball well."
That has usually been one of Charles' strengths. The left-hander from New Zealand has made a senior career out of consistency. It was more of the same Friday for Charles, who was upset to see the tournament move from Tampa Palms to the TPC of Tampa Bay, but managed to master the course anyway.
"These were the slowest greens I've ever putted on on the senior tour," said Charles, who has won two of the previous four GTE Suncoast Classics. "If they were quick, it would be a totally different golf course. It couldn't get any easier than it was today. I was disappointed in my round. I missed five putts inside of 8 feet."
And that's from a guy who did well. The fans' favorites didn't. Arnold Palmer, with a triple-bogey 8 on the seventh hole, shot 77. Chi Chi Rodriguez managed a 70, despite a three-putt bogey on the last hole. And Lee Trevino, with bogeys at the 14th and 15th holes, dropped to a 70.
But there's still two days to go, with plenty of golf to be played _ and seen.
"People just love golf in Florida," Zembriski said. "I love it, too. I love for them to come out. It's wonderful."