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Senior Players Miss Defending Champion

by Jack Berry

The scene: Larry Gilbert, 54-year-old longtime Kentucky club pro, fires a 5-under-par final round 67 to win the $1.8 million Ford Senior Players Championship at the Tournament Players Club of Michigan, leaving two-time champion Dave Stockton, Jack Nicklaus and all the other stars of the Senior PGA Tour in his wake. Gilbert happily leaves the 18th green with his ever-present cigar in his mouth. Two months later he is diagnosed with lung cancer. Five months after the greatest triumph of his career, Gilbert is dead of cancer.

The 1998 Ford Senior Players Championship is dedicated to Larry Gilbert, one of the most popular players among the pros themselves on the Senior Tour.

"It hit our Tour hard," Stockton said. "It was a senseless loss. Two things seem inevitable on the Senior Tour: 1-Drive carts, and 2-Smoke cigars."

Gilbert made it the hard way. While he was respected for winning the PGA of America's Club Professional Championship three times and played a record six times on the American team against Europe in the PGA Cup Matches with a 15-8-2 won-lost-tied record, Gilbert wasn't a member of the star-studded regular Tour.

Gilbert was a club pro who fixed members' slices and duck hooks, set up tee times, ran club tournaments and sold shoes, shirts and slacks. He stayed home to raise his family. But a small town club pro in Kentucky doesn't make a lot of money and when Gilbert turned 50, his goal was to make the unbelievably rich Senior Tour.

Gilbert was medalist in the 1992 Senior Tour National Qualifying Tournament by six strokes, the second best margin in the Q School's history. And he found the gold he was looking for with $515,790 in 1993, his rookie season.

Life was good. Gilbert won twice in 1994, shooting three straight 66s to beat back Raymond Floyd and win the Vantage Championship and its $225,000 first prize.

In the "old days," before the Senior Tour got going in 1980, the stars of the regular Tour faded away to club jobs when they reached their mid-40s and no longer could compete with the younger players. George Bayer was at Detroit Golf Club. Ted Kroll was at Franklin Hills Country Club and it was the same around the country. They were hired more for their name and ability to tell inside stories of the Tour than their ability to teach.

Then came the Senior Tour and the opportunity to see the sport's greatest stars, mellower and more gallery-friendly but still competitive among themselves, having a great time and making more money than they ever dreamed possible.

But whereas those stars seemed so different from us when they were at the peak of their games, strong and bullet-proof, the Senior Tour has shown us they are afflicted with the same age-borne ailments that the rest of us suffer. Jack Nicklaus has an arthritic hip and he limps when he walks and he can't make the full swing he did when he was winning 70 times on the regular Tour.

Lee Trevino has had neck and thumb surgery. George Archer can fill a medical book with surgeries -- back, wrist, hip replacement.

And then there's the deadly affliction: cancer.

Arnold Palmer, Jim Colbert and Jim Ferree have undergone surgery for prostate cancer.

Palmer was a longtime cigarette smoker; it was part of his persona. A draw on the cigarette and then a flick away, a tug at the waist of his trousers and then the shot.

Tobacco was all right then. Everyone did it. Ben Hogan did and he was featured in cigarette ads. Tobacco companies were prime sponsors in golf and RJR Nabisco was the biggest. Now it's down to one event, the Vantage Championship.

But old habits die hard and that's especially so on the Senior Tour.

"It makes absolutely no sense to me but I understand why they do it," Dave Stockton said. "My mother and father were 2-3 pack a day smokers and they died of lung cancer. My mother was head of the San Bernardino County Chapter of the American Cancer Society and she knew the dangers but she couldn't quit."

And Stockton, who never smoked and who walks instead of driving a cart, said he isn't aware of anyone quitting since the death of Gilbert.

"Walter Morgan tried to stop but he didn't play any good so he started smoking again. In a way, it's sad. I see Dana Quigley, John Jacobs, Larry Laoretti, Tom Wargo and I just shake my head. It makes no sense to me, why someone would want to kill themself.

"Even my son David (who plays the regular Tour) occasionally smokes a cigar because his father-in-law smokes them. I just shake my head.

"We have no smoking areas in our eating and phone rooms (in Senior Tour lockerrooms) and during a rainout (at Charlotte, NC), Dave Hill was sitting there smoking with a no smoking sign in front of him. He kept smoking away."

Stockton cares about his fellow competitors. The day after he heard about Gilbert's death, he telephoned Ford Senior Players Tournament Manager Greg Wheeler to volunteer his services. Normally the defending champion flies in for the spring Media Day to promote the tournament and make a round of public appearances.

Stockton is a member of Team Cadillac and wears that car maker's logo on his golf shirts but first and foremost, he is a Senior Tour player and his peers think so much of him that they elected him one of four player directors to the nine-member Senior Tour Division Board.

Stockton is pro-active in every sense of the term. When he attended the Media Day for this year's Ford Senior Players he revealed that the Senior Tour sent Gilbert's widow a check for the last place money for last year's season-ending Energizer Senior Tour Championship and for this year's opener, the MasterCard Championship. Gilbert was eligible for both. The checks totaled more than $30,000.

And at the Media Day, Stockton passed out pledge cards for the Senior Tour's CaP CURE campaign. Folks pick a player or players and pledge money for each birdie that player makes this year. The money goes to fight prostate cancer which Stockton said "will kill more men this year than women will die of breast cancer."

Pledge cards are available by writing the Senior PGA Tour, 112, TPC Blvd., Ponte Vedra Beach, FL 32082.

FOR SENIOR PLAYERS NOTES: This year's purse is $2 million, matching the Energizer as the season's richest. It is the tournament's eighth year in Michigan and the sixth time under Ford sponsorship. The tournament raised $600,000 for southeast Michigan charities last year.

The Tournament Players Club of Michigan is one of the most successful among the 16 TPCs currently open and has transformed virtual wasteland into a top-drawer community in six years.

"We have 61 residential lots and only seven are left," said Wayne Doran, the head of Ford Motor Land Development Corp. and a Ford vice president. "One Ford executive came out and looked at a lot and three months later said he was ready to go ahead with buying and building. I told him `There's a house under construction on that lot right now.'

"You can't wait," said Doran, the man who convinced then Ford Chairman Red Poling to build TPC Michigan.

"Red asked me 'Do you think this is going to work?'," Doran said.

Obviously, it has.

If anyone should buy a lot, it's two-time Ford Players champion Dave Stockton who loves the Jack Nicklaus-designed course so much that he has the best stroke average on it, 69.67 over 24 rounds. Raymond Floyd's 69.75 is next best.

"We love to come and shoot low scores," Stockton said, laughing. "It makes Jack mad."

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