BY MIKE FIELDS
Thirty-five years ago this month (May 19, 1983) Arnold Palmer visited Lexington to help publicize the inaugural Citizens Union Senior Golf Classic, which would be played that September at Griffin Gate Golf Club.
Despite rainy, windy weather, the bespectacled Palmer put on a 20-minute clinic, then played a 9-hole exhibition with locals Dave Bunnell, Buddy Schneider and David Grissom in front of 1,500 fans who paid $5 apiece to watch the most popular player in the history of the game.
Palmer, ever the people’s pro, signed autographs throughout the day and constantly chatted up spectators during his 3-hour round.
It was the beginning of a strong 15-year relationship between the Senior PGA Tour (now known as PGA TOUR Champions) and Central Kentucky.
The Citizens Union Senior Classic changed names (Bank One became the title sponsor in 1986) and golf courses (it was played at Griffin Gate from 1983-89, and at Kearney Hill Links from 1990-97), and its purse grew steadily (from $150,000 in 1983 to $800,000 in 1997), but one constant over the years was the community’s support for the event.
Now, 21 years after the final putt dropped at the Bank One Classic at Kearney Hill, the PGA TOUR is coming to Central Kentucky.
The $3.2 million Barbasol Championship will be played July 16-22 at Champions at Keene Trace, the first of a four-year commitment to hold the event at the Jessamine County course.
Before the Barbasol Championship starts to make memories for area golf fans, a look back on some highlights from the Citizens Union/Bank One Classic:
- 1983 — Don January won the first Citizens Union title and $25,000, but an incident involving Arnold Palmer was more memorable. In the first round at Griffin Gate, Palmer pushed his tee shot on the 17th hole to the right. An oblivious spectator picked up Palmer’s ball and tossed it across the fence and onto the adjacent driving range. Palmer was able to take a free drop, but his ball rolled into a rut and he wound up taking a bogey. “I wasn’t particularly happy about the whole situation,” Arnie said. “I didn’t jump for joy.”
- 1984 — Sam Snead, hale and hearty at age 72, had a hole-in-one on the 190-yard par 3 second hole. It was the 28th ace of his career.
- 1984 – Hometown hero Gay Brewer won the Citizens Union title in front of his mom, brother, sister, daughter and other family members. It was a dreary final day at Griffin Gate, with cloudy and drizzly conditions, until Brewer arrived at the 18th Then, as if on cue, the sun came out. “To win my first individual senior title here in my hometown in front of all my relatives and all the people who knew me when I was growing up, it was just great,” an emotional Brewer said.
- 1985 – Lee Elder overcame an aching back to win the rain-shortened (36 holes) tournament by beating Dan Sikes, Orville Moody and Walt Zembriski in a three-hole playoff. The next day Elder checked into a Washington D.C. hospital and spent almost five days in traction to relieve lower-back pain.
- 1989 – After his good buddy Larry Gilbert talked him into coming to Lexington, Texan Rives McBee shot a 67 in Monday qualifying to get into the field for the Bank One Classic. Then McBee did something extraordinary: he won the tournament and $45,000. In a gesture to Gilbert, who at the time was the pro at Champions, McBee wore a Champions golf shirt the final day.
- 1990 – Showing that his victory in 1989 was no fluke, Rives McBee repeated as Bank One champ, winning the first tournament contested at Kearney Hill Links. “I’ll always have a spot in my heart for Lexington,” he said.
- 1991 – Gary Player, who prided himself on his physical fitness, pulled a calf muscle during the second round of the Bank One Classic. Unable to walk 18 holes the final day, Player had to ride a cart in competition for the first time in his career. “I hated it,” he said. “I felt like an old pop.”
- 1991 – DeWitt Weaver, who was born in Danville (where his dad was an assistant coach in several sports at Centre College), was 5 shots out of the lead going into the final round but fired a 7-under 65 and beat J.C. Snead in a playoff. “It was 50 years ago that I picked up my first club when I was a 2-year-old,” Weaver said. “Now I’ve come back to Kentucky to win my first tournament as a senior.”
- 1992 – There was lots of buzz going into the Bank One Classic because Raymond Floyd was making his Senior Tour debut. Floyd had finished runner-up to Fred Couples in the Masters only five months earlier. The national media descended on Kearney Hill to see how Floyd would fare. He wound up tying for sixth place while unknown Terry Dill got his first – and only – career victory.
- 1995 – Gary Player won the Bank One Classic for the second time in three years thanks to an 8-birdie barrage in a final-round 64, just a month before his 60th. Player credited a new driver for his victory and jokingly said, “If I had to choose between this (driver) and my wife, I’d miss her. She’s in Florida so I can say that.” Player, a horseman, also expressed his love for the Bluegrass. He was staying at Stonereath Farm and attended three days of Keeneland’s yearling sales.
- 1997 – Before the first tee shot, it had already been determined that this would be the final year for the Bank One Classic. Lexington couldn’t keep up with the rising purse money required to host the event. With the Golf Channel broadcasting the tournament for the first time, Vicente Fernandez claimed the $120,000 winner’s share of the $800,000 purse. His victory underscored the international cachet the Lexington tournament developed over the years. Fernandez, who was from Argentina, joined a list of winners that also included Gary Player of South Africa, Isao Aoki of Japan, Bob Charles of New Zealand and Bruce Crampton of Australia.
Winners of the Citizens Union/Bank One Senior Classic
1983: Don January, $25,000 (Griffin Gate)
1984: Gay Brewer, $26,050 (Griffin Gate)
1985: Lee Elder, $30,000 (Griffin Gate
1986: Gene Littler, $30,000 (Griffin Gate)
1987: Bruce Crampton, $33,750 (Griffin Gate)
1988: Bob Charles,$37,.500 (Griffin Gate)
1989: Rives McBee, $45,000 (Griffin Gate)
1990: Rives McBee, $45,000 (Kearney Hill)
1991: DeWitt Weaver, $45,000 (Kearney Hill)
1992: Terry Dill, $75,000 (Kearny Hill)
1993: Gary Player, $82,500 (Kearney Hill)
1994: Isao Aoki, $82,500 (Kearney Hill)
1995: Gary Player, $90,000 (Kearney Hill)
1996: Mike Hill, $90,000 (Kearney Hill)
1997: Vicente Fernandez, $120,000 (Kearney Hill)