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Senior tour trying to get rid of wrinkles

A yearlong celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Champions Tour began this week in Atlantic City, N.J., site of the first event won by Don January in 1980.

January, who went on to win 22 times on what was then called the Senior PGA Tour, returned for an outing. So did Miller Barber, Billy Casper, Hale Irwin and Jim Colbert.

All of them played a significant role in the formation of senior golf, but none will be able to carry the Champions Tour if it is to enjoy another 25 years.

Other than the ageless Irwin, who at 59 won his 40th Champions Tour event this year, those greats of the game are rarely a factor. The same could be said for Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, for Chi Chi Rodriguez and Lee Trevino.

Where the tour goes from here is largely up to Rick George, 44, who last year was named president of the Champions Tour and immediately had to deal with sponsorship issues, aging stars and finding a niche in the sports marketplace.

It is not George's fault that companies cut back their sports spending in a tough economy, or that Palmer and Nicklaus moved into their golf twilight years, or that the Champions Tour was dwarfed in popularity by its corporate brother, the PGA Tour.

But it is a reality he faces as the 50-and-older circuit tries to remain viable.

"There are some challenges," George said this week during a visit to promote the Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am in Lutz. "I think we've got a great product. But I don't think this tour gets the respect it needs. Our tour is very competitive, but I don't think we've pounded the table enough and let people know just how good these guys are."

George, a former defensive back at the University of Illinois who worked in athletic administration at Illinois, Colorado and Vanderbilt before becoming tournament director of the New Orleans PGA Tour stop, was appointed president of the Champions Tour in January 2003.

He took over full time in May that year and has not missed an event, becoming a welcome sight for players who wondered if their tour was being neglected. Tim Finchem is commissioner of the PGA Tour but overseas all of the tour's brands, including the Nationwide Tour and Champions Tour.

"I think it was a huge, huge plus when Rick was named president," said Gary Koch, a Champions Tour player who lives in Tampa and also is a golf analyst for NBC. "If there had been a complaint from the players, it was that the then-senior tour was kind of like second fiddle to the regular tour. Now we're in a situation with Rick where he is very visible. He's very accessible. If you have an idea, he wants to hear it. That's made a huge difference."

George had barely been on the job when it was learned one of the tour's top events was in trouble. For 16 years, Tampa's Champions Tour stop was popular with players because of enormous crowds and an excellent course in the TPC of Tampa Bay. But the longtime title sponsor was not renewing.

George didn't need one of the tour's best to go away.

"The players would not have been happy," he said. "They love coming here."

That's when locally based Outback stepped up, signing a three-year agreement to sponsor the event. Outback didn't take over until a year ago _ five months before the tournament, which came with a new pro-am format.

Attendance was noticeably down at the 2004 tournament, won by Mark McNulty, and the late start on preparation was an obvious reason. That's why George came here this week to help get the word out as the Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am announced various ticket promotions for the Feb. 25-27 event.

George pointed out that many fan-friendly initiatives started by the tour _ honorary observers who go inside the ropes, on-course clinics, question and answer sessions with the players and on-course interviews _ have been well-received. But he said one of his priorities is to improve attendance, not just here but throughout the Champions Tour.

"If you were to poll all the guys, the No. 1 thing in my mind would be attendance," Koch said. "Personally, I think the worst perception on this tour is when you have a telecast and there is nobody in the grandstands. Rick has addressed that. Some tournaments are fine, but some are not. To me as a player, it's hard to get real excited about playing if there are not a lot of people there. You feed off the crowd and their enthusiasm. There are some events we have where that is difficult to do. From my standpoint, that's the biggest issue."

George has other issues to deal with. Carts will be banned during competition next year, which has angered some older players. And tournaments continue to come and go. Florida could be just a two-tournament state, as no sponsor has been found to replace the long-time event in Key Biscayne.

But with players such as Greg Norman and Curtis Strange about to turn 50, and with fellow seniors Craig Stadler, Peter Jacobsen, Jerry Pate and Jay Haas having reached the magic age, George figures he has plenty to sell.

"I think the next 25 years will be better than the first 25," he said.

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