Champions Tour founders share stories

By Jeff Shain
Published on

HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. -- "See all these pictures?" Jim Ferree says, grabbing a glossy poster adorned with two rings of black-and-white photos that recall a different era in golf.

There's Sam Snead along the bottom right, his photo alphabetically next to Charlie Sifford. Billy Casper graces the top row. Doug Ford. Miller Barber. Don January. Tommy Bolt. Lee Elder. And, yes, Hilton Head Island's very own Ferree.

Hall of Famers. Major winners. Some just PGA Tour mainstays, reaching back to the days before Arnie gathered an army and Gary Player was on his first 100,000 air miles.

The poster calls them the "Great Grand Champions of the PGA Tour." More to the point, they laid the foundation for what's now the Champions Tour. And, all these years later, there aren't that many left.

"Only 10 people, out of all these people, are alive," Ferree said.

And that's what made Monday's gathering at Wexford Plantation such a special occasion. Eight of those 10 -- all who could travel -- came to Hilton Head Island for an afternoon holding court and remembering old times to help raise money for The First Tee of the Lowcountry.

The outing generates one-fourth of the chapter's annual operating budget. On Monday, their coffers were also enhanced by a $100,000 donation from Colleton River Plantation.

"This (day) is a gift from the PGA Tour," said Mike Davis, executive director of the local chapter. "This doesn't happen very often, so we're very appreciative to have them here."

The senior ambassadors only gather twice a year, in fact. Their credentials, though, remain untarnished by time.

Ford is in the Hall of Fame, a two-time major winner who finally was enshrined four years ago in a move long overdue. Bob Goalby is a former Masters champion, not to mention the second winner of the Heritage Classic.

Lee Elder is the man who in 1975 broke the color barrier at the Masters. Doug Sanders still wears eye-catching colors, his sky-blue cardigan looking like it just came out of the box.

Don January won the first official Champions Tour event in 1980, finishing the four-event schedule as the circuit's top money winner. Dow Finsterwald won 11 PGA Tour events, Billy Maxwell won seven.

"We love it," said Ferree, who played 11 seasons, stepped away to become director of golf at Long Cove Club and stepped back into the arena when the Champions Tour came along. His involvement with The First Tee of the Lowcountry provided the impetus for Monday's affair.

"This is a way for us to get together and see one another. We've been competing against each other from the mid-'50s to maybe the mid-'80s. So we played a lot of competition against one another and got to be good friends."

And they still love to swap stories. This being Hilton Head, Elder animatedly recalled a long-ago Heritage Classic where he needed relief from a boat.

In those days, a small boat was parked in the water flanking Harbour Town's 18th green. Elder tugged his approach shot a little too far left, watching his ball carom off the slope leading to the water -- and onto the vessel.

"Somewhere you'll find photos of me standing around waiting for the rules official to give me relief," said Elder, who for many years returned to the island for his own charity event at Shipyard Golf Club.

For Goalby, Monday's visit was his first return to Hilton Head Island in perhaps two decades. His victory at the 1970 Heritage was the next-to-last of his career, and he stopped playing full-time four years later until the Champions Tour launched.

"It wasn't a place for guys who were 45 or 46," he recalled, explaining that middle-of-the-pack finishes were no way for touring pros to meet expenses.

Monday's gathering, by the way, does put a little extra in the Great Grand Champions' pockets. The Champions Tour didn't start a pension fund until 1986, after many founders were too old to build up equity.

Tour officials then created the Great Grand Champions circuit, where the early greats could play pro-ams and give clinics as a way to build their retirement nest egg.

Sadly, though, that number is getting smaller.

Casper and Sifford, two Grand Champion giants, passed away last year. They lost Howie Johnson earlier this year. Gene Littler recently had to curtail his travel from the West Coast. Al Besselink holds on in South Florida, but rarely travels.

Ford is 93 these days, Finsterwald 86, Ferree 84. Elder is the youngster at 81.

"It's too bad we can't do it more," Ferree said.

To bring them to the Lowcountry even once, though, was a day to celebrate. "It's a real treat for us," Davis said.

This article was written by Jeff Shain from The Island Packet Online and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.