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Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
Tom Watson smiles after an eagle during the Uniting Fore Care Classic on the Park Meadows course in Park City in 2002.

It was five years ago this month that Morris Hatalsky, a little-known rookie on the Senior PGA Tour, won the Uniting Fore Care Classic at Park Meadows Golf Club with a score of +42.

Hatalsky won by 12 points over Jay Sigel in the Modified Stableford scoring system, employed as part of a last-ditch effort to save the longtime Park City tournament.

However, the unusual scoring system along with appearances by Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson, weren't enough to keep the Senior Tour in Utah at the end of a 20-year run.

After two decades of annual appearances by many of golf's biggest names, exciting golf shots and thrilling finishes, several tournament name changes, the almost-annual holding-on-by-the-skin-of-its-teeth status on the Senior schedule and despite the gallant efforts of tournament director Bryan Naugle and several other local volunteers, the Senior golf tournament finally died in November 2002.

The tournament had begun in 1982 when Jeremy Ranch owner Gerald Bagley and Palmer, the designer of the course, got together and decided a Senior Tour tournament would be just the ticket for the brand-new golf course.

The Senior Tour had begun in 1980 with just four tournaments and expanded quickly, to 11 in '82 to 38 by 1990, and hit its high point of 39 events in 1996 and 2000.

The appeal of seeing old favorites such as Palmer, Sam Snead, Billy Casper, Chi Chi Rodriguez and Lee Trevino was enormous. Golf fans flooded Jeremy Ranch in the early years with thousands lining the fairways to see some of golf's legends.

Several times over the next two decades, the tournament was on the verge of extinction, only to get a last-minute reprieve. In the late 1980s Sen. Orrin Hatch helped save the event and Franklin Quest stepped up as a sponsor in the early 1990s.

In 1998, the tournament was all but gone when Naugle, a former PGA administrator who moved to Park City in the late 1990s and became the tournament director, used his connections to keep the tourney afloat. When Novell became a sponsor a few months later, the tourney appeared to be on solid footing. But when Novell didn't extend its four-year commitment, the tournament couldn't survive.

When the plug was finally pulled in 2002, the tournament was second in terms of longevity, behind only the tournament in Boston.

So how has the Senior Tour changed since leaving Utah? Well for one thing, it changed its moniker to the Champions Tour in 2003.

For another, growth leveled off after skyrocketing for many years.

Tournament purses dropped from a high of $58.2 million in 2001 to $52.7 million in 2004 and have leveled off since with $54.1 this year and $55.2 million in 2008. The number of tournaments has dropped from a high of 39 in 1996 and 2000 to just 29 this year and next.

Nevertheless, Champions Tour President Rick George recently said, "the Champions Tour continues on a strong upswing," and points out that the current tournaments and title sponsors aren't changing as much as they used to.

Now Champions Tour events don't conflict with any of the four majors. With 10 fewer tournaments than the peak in 2000, it would seem that the tour is on a decline. However, in 2008, the average tournament purse will be $1.9 million, the highest in history.

Champions Tour official Phil Stambaugh acknowledges the tour "was in a bit of a lull" the past few years, but like George believes it is heading up.

"We had a period of stabilization, but now we're going up," he said. "We're starting to see some good momentum."

Stambaugh points to the current 2007 class as one of the best-ever for the Champions Tour with the likes of Nick Price, Nick Faldo and Mark O'Meara already playing and Bernhard Langer, John Cook and Jeff Sluman due to turn 50 later this year.

Next year, Ian Woosnam and Sandy Lyle could join the tour, and the following year Fred Couples becomes eligible.

Because the tour has cut back on the number of events, each tournament is more likely to attract top players.

"Each of our fields is a quality field," Stambaugh said. "We have more golfers that people have heard of."

Changes in eligibility are also helping the tour get more name players. Now players who have won tournaments have an easier path into tournaments than they used to when money winnings were the main criteria. Players such as Lon Hinkle and Mark Hayes, who each had three wins on the PGA Tour, had a hard time getting into senior events, but now have higher exempt status as former winners.

Local players who have won tournaments but not enough career money such as Dan Forsman, Keith Clearwater and Jay Don Blake will have better status on the tour when they turn 50 in the next couple of years because of their wins on the PGA Tour.

The tour is also trying to become more fan-friendly with a program that allows a number of fans to walk inside the ropes with the players during tournaments, and golfers are trying to be more accessible.

These days if you visit the Park Meadows Country Club, you'll find few remnants of the former tournament. There's a painting of the golf course with signatures of several winners around the matting.

There's a framed photograph of Palmer, Trevino and Jack Nicklaus, when they played in the same threesome in the 1999 tournament. But not much else.

"You still hear talk about it from certain members, but not much," said Park Meadows head professional Marty Bauer.

The fact that the Champions Tour has cut the number of tournaments by 25 percent since its high point makes it unlikely it will ever return to Utah, right?

Not necessarily, says Stambaugh.

"I wouldn't say that," said Stambaugh. "There's been talk about a tournament in St. George, and that's a possibility. I've talked with Mark O'Meara (who has a home in Park City) about how it's a shame they were unable to get a sponsor to keep the tournament going. I always liked going there, and the players did too."

Utah Senior event over the years

            

Year Events Total purses1982 11 $1,372,0001987 32 $8,700,0001992 3 $21,025,0001997 38 $41,750,0002002 35 $57,900,0002007 29 $54,100,000

1982-85 Shootout at Jeremy Ranch1986-88 Showdown Classic1989-91 US West Showdown Classic1992 Franklin Showdown1993-97 Franklin Quest Championship1998 Utah Showdown1999-01 Novell Showdown2002 Uniting Fore Care Classic


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