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Life begins at 50 in the US Seniors Tour

TOM KITE, arguably the most famous bespectacled Texan since Buddy Holly, turned 50 last week. But I don't suppose Tom Watson pulled any party poppers, or Lanny Wadkins, or Larry Nelson, or any of the other golfers who have recently joined the gravy train that is the US Seniors Tour. Because each time another top player turns 50, the gravy gets a little more diluted.

Ben Crenshaw and Fuzzy Zoeller become eligible in a couple of years, while 10 February, 2005, will doubtless prove to be a momentous day in seniors golf - the 50th birthday of Gregory John Norman. In the meantime, 64-year-old Chi Chi Rodriguez is enjoying himself. "The great thing about this Seniors Tour," he quipped recently, "is that I won't have to play against [Tiger] Woods until I'm 90-plus."

The likes of Kite and Watson, of course, don't have to worry too much about their earning power being nobbled by the coming-of-age of Crenshaw, Norman and other whippersnappers. They already have enough stashed away to ensure that they, their children, indeed their children's children's children, need never work again. On which subject, I enjoyed Ron Atkinson's remark during last week's Champions League match between Manchester United and Valencia, to the effect that Roy Keane - with the ink barely dry on his pounds 52,000-a-week contract - should ask for a pay rise if his goal turned out to be the winner. Big Ron was right. You can't take those kind of earnings seriously.

There are some on the Seniors Tour, though, who genuinely need the dough.

In 17 years as a journeyman pro, Tom Wargo won a less-than-grand total of just over $16,000. In 1993 he reached the magic milestone, worked hard on his game, and by mid-1998 had added a further $3,673,486.

Tom Wargo, incidentally, features on a list I have drawn up with my friend Davey, of American Golfers With Very Silly Names. Howard Twitty (another man merrily cashing in after turning 50 this year) features on the list, along with Fred Funk, Scott Gump, Jodie Mudd, Duffy Waldorf, Rocco Mediate and Orville Moody, to name but a handful. The list is restricted to pros, which is a shame, because when I lived in Atlanta I knew a very decent amateur player whose first name was Tray. I once spent an entertaining hour at the country club bar trying to get him to say "the drinks are on me".

DeWitt Weaver and Kermit Zarlmy, also on our list, are another pair of seniors who have enjoyed a new lease of life since turning 50. The regular tour, even in Europe, is full of fortysomethings wishing their lives away. For example, 46-year-old Sam Torrance, who can't be short of a bob or two, is rubbing his hands at the prospect of joining the Seniors Tour. He told me a couple of months ago that he plans to play around 15 tournaments a year in the US and unashamedly sees it as "a pension fund".

In most seniors events there is no 36-hole cut to worry about - as soon as you hit your first tee shot you are guaranteed a share of the prize money. So it was with tongue firmly in cheek that George Archer, the 1969 Masters champion and a big money-earner on the Seniors Tour, complained that basketball, baseball and football players all take up golf when they retire... "what the heck are we meant to do?"

In fact, Archer and his contemporaries love being competitive. "There's no sentiment out here, these guys are out to kill you every week," says the former Ryder Cup player JC Snead. But the killings are generally carried out with good humour, as you would expect of a tour where the likes of Lee Trevino and Chi-Chi Rodriguez loom large.

In the Las Vegas Senior Classic a few years ago, Rodriguez threw his sand-wedge to the ground in a huff, following a rare mishit. The club was picked up by a spectator, who offered to buy it for $50. Rodriguez agreed, but at the final hole found his ball plugged in a greenside bunker. He spotted the spectator in the crowd, rented back his sand-wedge for a dollar, holed the shot to tumultuous applause, then calmly returned the club. Such are the shenanigans that make golf fans in the States flock to seniors events, not to mention the thrill of seeing such living legends as Nicklaus, Player and Watson actually in contention.

The other attraction of seniors golf is that the oldies play a game which we humble handicappers can at least recognise. Last year, in the Tradition tournament in Arizona, David Duval's father, Bob, topped his opening drive barely 50 yards. It is awesome to watch Duval Jnr score a 59, but a sight more comforting to watch the old man.