U.S. SENIOR OPEN
1980: A New Championship Begins
August 8, 2016 | Columbus, Ohio
By Bill Fields
Tournaments in which senior professionals could compete against their age-group peers were rare for a long time. The PGA Seniors’ Championship, inaugurated in 1937 and won by stars such as Gene Sarazen and Sam Snead, was an exception. That event, now called the Senior PGA Championship, started getting company in the late 1970s.
Senior golf as we know it was inspired by the second Legends of Golf in 1979. The better-ball tournament at Onion Creek Country Club in Austin, Texas, played to a memorable, birdie-rich conclusion as the team of Julius Boros and Roberto De Vicenzo defeated the team of Tommy Bolt and Art Wall Jr. on the sixth extra hole.
The drama thrilled a national television audience and thousands watching in person, proving that the perceived “former” greats were still great. The Senior PGA Tour, now called the PGA Tour Champions, for golfers age 50 and older, started with a couple of events the following season. The USGA also created the U.S. Senior Open, which in its first year required golfers to be a minimum age of 55, long the standard for senior amateur championships, including the U.S. Senior Amateur, which debuted in 1955.
The inaugural U.S. Senior Open was contested June 26-29, 1980, on the East Course at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y. Five U.S. Open winners – Bolt, Boros, Jack Fleck, Ed Furgol and Lew Worsham – were among 27 major champions in the 150-man field. Notable absentees were Snead, who had an injured back, and Ben Hogan, who no longer played competitively.
A quartet of golfers – Mike Fetchick, Ted Kroll, Charlie Sifford and amateur Bill Trombley – shared the first-round lead at 1-over 71. On a steamy second day, reigning U.S. Senior Amateur and 1964 U.S. Amateur champion Bill Campbell shot a 68 to take a one-stroke lead over Wall.
De Vicenzo, the legendary Argentinian who won the 1967 Open Championship, missed the first Senior Tour stop the previous week due to the flu. But De Vicenzo’s game perked up in the third round as he matched Campbell’s Friday score of 68 to take a two-stroke lead over Wall into the final round.
A closing 70 provided De Vicenzo a comfortable path to victory. His 1-over 285 total gave him a four-stroke margin over fellow 57-year-old Campbell, with Wall another shot behind. De Vicenzo won $20,000 and received the Francis D. Ouimet Memorial Trophy, a sterling silver cup that dates to 1894.
The USGA lowered the eligible age for the U.S. Senior Open to 50 for the 1981 championship at Oakland Hills Country Club outside Detroit. Arnold Palmer, 51, prevailed in an 18-hole playoff over Billy Casper and Bob Stone to become the first golfer to capture U.S. Amateur, U.S. Open and U.S. Senior Open titles. Jack Nicklaus is the only other person to have achieved the feat.
The U.S. Senior Open was off and running.
Bill Fields is a Connecticut-based freelance writer who contributes regularly to USGA websites.