Celebrity is the currency on which the PGA Tour Champions trades to create interest and has since it was conceived in part as a means of keeping Arnold Palmer on stage after 50. A good idea, of course.
But the value of its currency depends in part on the quality of each new class of 50-year-olds. On that note, looking ahead, well, the senior tour is in for a bear market for a time, and not a Golden Bear market.
On the upside, at this the start of a new year, it is not the start of a new season. The Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai that begins on Hawaii’s Big Island on Thursday and finishes Saturday night is the continuation of a 2020 season reduced by the pandemic to only 15 tournaments. So the story lines that made news last year continue into this year.
By rote, it begins with World Golf Hall of Famer Bernhard Langer, who leads the Charles Schwab Cup money list by only $28,899 over another Hall of Famer, Ernie Els. Langer, 63, continues to belie his age and will resume his pursuit of Hale Irwin’s senior-record 45 wins. Langer has 41, but maybe the best indication that he retains the skills necessary to continue the chase is that only two months ago he tied for 29th in the Masters.
Els, meanwhile, has two victories in this the continuation of his rookie season. So do Jim Furyk and Phil Mickelson, both of whom won their first two senior starts. Furyk is likely to continue splitting his time between the PGA Tour and the PGA Tour Champions (he finished T-47 at the Sony Open in Honolulu ahead of week’s PGA Tour Champions start), while Mickelson is expected to devote most of his time to the PGA Tour.
Those are names still most likely to deliver interest in the senior tour. On the horizon, meanwhile, the 2021 rookie with the best resume will be Padraig Harrington, a winner of three major championships. On the downside, he does not turn 50 until the end of August. The other relative notable turning 50 is Thomas Bjorn, a former captain of the European Ryder Cup team who hits the magic number in February, while former PGA Championship winner Rich Beem turned 50 late last year.
Looking out further in time, the best prospect for a rookie class to rival 2020-21 will be 2026, though it will depend largely on whether Tiger Woods chooses to participate. Smart money at this point says he won’t.
Others who will be eligible in 2026 are Zach Johnson, Henrik Stenson and Ian Poulter. Johnson and Stenson are major champions, the former a winner at both Augusta National and St. Andrews, and Poulter is, well, always entertaining.
Prior to that will be the 2023 class that will feature Stewart Cink and Lee Westwood. Cink has a memorable Open Championship victory in a playoff over a 59-year-old Tom Watson in 2009, and at 47, he won the Safeway Classic last fall. Westwood is coming off a 2020 season in which he was the European Tour’s golfer of the year, an honor he claimed for the fourth time, the first coming 22 years prior. Westwood is in line to potentially be the European Tour Ryder Cup captain in 2023, which would likely delay his start on the PGA Tour Champions. But whenever he chooses to compete, there’s a good chance he could succeed much the same way Langer, Darren Clarke (a first-time Champions winner in 2020) and Colin Montgomerie have since joining the 50-and-older crowd.