The Champions Tour has provided a mulligan of sorts for a variety of golfers who have reached their 50th birthdays, including three Georgians who took very different paths before joining the tour in the late 1990s/early 2000s.
Marietta’s Larry Nelson took the conventional path to the Champions Tour, enjoying a successful PGA Tour career before becoming one of the top senior players for seven years, winning 20 tournaments in that span.
Allen Doyle was a career amateur until making the decision to turn pro at the age of 46. After an outstanding season on the Nike (now Web.com) Tour, the long-time LaGrange resident became the oldest PGA Tour rookie in history and played there for two years before turning 50 and enjoying eight outstanding Champions Tour seasons, winning 11 times including four majors.
Georgia native James Mason was a career club professional until he turned 50 in 2001 and took a shot at the Champions Tour. After playing his way into a 2002 tournament in New Jersey in a Monday qualifier, Mason became just the eighth qualifier in tour history to win the event, and played the tour on a regular basis for almost a decade before becoming an infrequent tournament participant.
Nelson continues to play the tour on an occasional basis, but Doyle last played in 2013, leaving the tour due to health issues. Mason no longer has status to get into tournaments, and is back to playing geographically convenient Monday qualifiers. He will get at least one more chance to play on the Champions Tour, qualifying for this year’s Senior PGA Championship after tying for second in last year’s PGA Senior Professional Championship, the national championship for senior PGA of America members.
The 67-year-old Nelson played the PGA Tour for 24 years before turning 50 in 1997. He won 10 PGA Tour titles between 1979 and ’88 including three majors – the 1981 and ’87 PGA Championships and ’83 U.S. Open. His ’81 PGA Championship came at Atlanta Athletic Club and was one of three victories he scored in his home town.
Nelson won the Atlanta Classic in 1980 and ’88 at Atlanta Country Club, where he has long resided. The latter win was his last on the PGA Tour, as he became a less frequent competitor for most of his 40s before playing a bit more as he neared his 50th birthday.
After a few lean years, Nelson turned in some solid efforts in his final two seasons on the PGA Tour, nearly scoring a win at the age of 49 when he tied for second at Doral in 1997.
Nelson was still a competitive player on the PGA Tour when he became a Champions Tour member, and was one of the top over-50 players from 1998 to 2004, finishing in the top 10 on the money list six times in seven years.
In 2000 Nelson enjoyed one of the best seasons ever on the tour, winning six tournaments and placing second seven times. He won 17 times in his first four years on the tour and added three more victories in 2003 and ’04 before injuries and age ended his seven-year run of exceptional play.
In addition to his 20 Champions Tour wins, Nelson also teamed with sons Josh and Drew to win three Father/Son titles between 2004 and ’08. He remained a competitive Champions Tour through 2013, but made just 10 starts last year.
After winning three majors on the regular tour, Nelson contended a number of times on the Champions Tour, but settled for five runner-up finishes. He was second in three of the four senior majors in 2000, losing in a playoff in one and finishing one stroke behind the winner in another despite shooting in the 60s the final day in both events.
In addition to his outstanding career on the course, Nelson had a second career as a golf course architect, with designs in both Japan and the U.S. Although one of his Atlanta designs (Centennial in Acworth) no longer exists, two of his courses remain – Brookstone in Acworth and the Legacy executive course in Smyrna. Among his designs are Gaylord Springs in Nashville, which hosted a Champions Tour event for several years, and a highly regarded resort layout in Myrtle Beach (Wild Wing).
Nelson, known throughout his career for his low-key personality but fierce competitive drive, has drawn some attention since his PGA Tour days for the never fully explained decision by the PGA of America to bypass him as Ryder Cup captain.
His playing credentials – three majors, two of them PGA Championships, 9-3-1 Ryder Cup record, unbeaten in singles – are impeccable and Nelson is one of a small number of pro golfers who served in the military, including a tour during the Vietnam War.
But he was repeatedly passed over, and after Tom Watson’s less than successful stint in that role last year, Nelson’s hopes of a belated selection appear to be near zero, something he has publicly accepted gracefully over the years in the face of his puzzling snub.
Doyle enjoyed the most successful Champions Tour career of any player who waited until he was 50 or near 50 to turn pro. As an amateur, Doyle competed on two Walker Cup teams, won six Georgia Amateur championships and five prominent events in 1994, including the Porter Cup, Sunnehana Amateur and Atlanta’s Dogwood Invitational.
At the age of 46 in 1995 Doyle turned pro with no status on any tour. In his second start on the Nike Tour he defeated fellow Georgian Franklin Langham in a playoff to win in Gulfport, Miss., and added a second victory in Texarkana, Ark. He closed out his first season as a pro by winning the Nike Tour Championship at Settindown Creek in Roswell.
Doyle, 66, celebrated his 48th birthday midway through his rookie season on the PGA Tour, but had to attempt the arduous qualifying process to retain his status for 1997. In his first and only visit to Q-school, Doyle was the co-medalist in the 1996 finals, but his second PGA Tour season didn’t go much better than his first.
“I did not do myself justice those two years,” Doyle said during his first and only appearance in the Greater Gwinnett Championship of his brief PGA Tour “career,” lamenting that he allowed himself “very little time to show what I could do.”
Doyle admitted that trying to play the PGA Tour for the first time in your late 40s was not an optimal situation, “but it made me play to a higher level and that’s why I turned pro.”
With his 50th birthday approaching in 1998, Doyle enjoyed a nice stretch of golf on the Nike Tour before ending his brief PGA Tour career with a tie for 7th in the Mississippi event played opposite the British Open.
Less than a month later, he made his Champions Tour debut and recorded a pair of top-5 finishes before winning in the finals of qualifying for the second time in three years.
With his short, hockey-style swing and highly competitive nature, Doyle was an immediate hit on the Champions Tour. He won four times as a rookie, including the PGA Seniors, one of the tour’s two most prestigious titles. Doyle also finished second four times, posted top-10 showings in more than half his 31 starts and ended the year third on the money list with more than $1.9 million.
After placing seventh in earnings the next year with a lone victory, Doyle rebounded from his “sophomore slump,” with a terrific third season as a senior. He won twice including one of the tour’s four majors, was second five times and third three times, had a staggering 25 top 10s in 34 starts and topped the money list with more than $2.5 million.
In his next five seasons Doyle finished between ninth and 17th each year in earnings and produced four more wins, including back-to-back U.S. Senior Open titles in 2005 and ’06.
In ’05, Doyle came from nine shots back after 54 holes, shooting a final round 63 to overcome a group of contenders that included Loren Roberts, Greg Norman and Tom Watson. He outdueled Watson for a second straight U.S. Senior Open win, closing with a 68 to turn a two-stroke deficit after 54 holes into a two-shot victory.
After a strong season-opening second place finish in Hawaii in 2007, Doyle never contended again on the Champions Tour, but he left with 11 wins, 112 top 10s and $13.4 million in earnings, the vast majority of that total in his first eight seasons.
Doyle also left the tour as one of the most respected competitors to play on the Champions Tour, especially for someone who spent just two seasons on the PGA Tour in his late 40s.
Just six months away from his final tournament appearance, Doyle said he was “going out with my head up. I just needed a chance and I took advantage of it.”
Mason was not the only career club professional to win on the Champions Tour, but few came as far as he did to enjoy a respectable career on the tour. Mason did not win a Georgia PGA event until he was 46, but was one of the Section’s top players in the late 1990s, winning six tournaments and three Player of the Year titles from 1997-2000.
After turning 50 early in 2001, Mason won both the Georgia Senior Open and Georgia PGA Senior Championship, and began attempting Monday qualifiers on the Champions Tour, making it into five events.
Mason’s seventh successful qualifying effort came in late May in 2002. He made it into the NFL Classic in Clifton, N.J., the second straight week he played his way into the field. He began the final round two strokes off the lead, but moved in front when he holed a wedge shot from the fairway for an eagle on a par 5 and also holed a greenside bunker shot for birdie, both on the front nine.
With the pressure mounting and a number of players poised to take advantage of any slip by the surprise leader, Mason held onto his lead on the back nine, shooting a final round 69 to win by two strokes over a trio of contenders.
That proved to be Mason’s only victory on the Champions Tour, be he was able to turn the one triumph into more than a decade on the tour. Although he never won again, Mason demonstrated on numerous occasions that his victory was not a fluke, as he made occasional runs at a second senior title, the first coming later in 2002 in Minnesota.
Mason found himself tied for the lead after 36 holes and paired in the final round with Hale Irwin, the Champions Tour’s dominant player. Irwin won the head-to-head duel 68-72, but Mason played well enough to finish in a tie for third to end up 40th on the money list with $444,000.
Without a win in 2003, Mason slightly increased his earnings from the previous year with $466,000, placing 41st in earnings with three top 10s and 15 finishes in the top 25.
But that turned out to be the last year that Mason held fully exempt status on the Champions Tour. For the next seven seasons, he spent many of his tournament weeks not knowing whether he was going to be in the field, getting into between 12 and 21 events each year and playing just well enough to retain some status through 2010.
Mason placed 42nd on the money list in 2005 highlighted by a tie for fifth in the Tradition, a Champions Tour major. But after three seasons in which he failed to crack the top 60 in earnings, Mason needed a strong showing in the finals of qualifying to regain his status for 2009. He tied for third in Naples, Fla., finishing only two shots behind the winner, tied for ninth in the Senior PGA Championship and narrowly retained his standing for 2010 by placing 50th on the money list.
Although he played respectably that season, he dropped out of the top 50 in earnings, and has gotten into just 21 events since, mostly through Monday qualifiers.
Mason’s last Champions Tour highlight came in 2011 in the Greater Hickory Classic in North Carolina. He shot 65 the final round to get into a playoff but lost to Mark Wiebe, who also closed with a 65. Thanks to his runner-up finish, Mason ended up 65th on the money list, the 10th straight year he placed between 40th and 75th in earnings.
“I shot 19-under for three rounds and I’m not that good a putter to shoot that low,” Mason said recently. “I wasn’t even thinking about winning. I got in my own world and wasn’t thinking about outcomes.”
It’s been a struggle for Mason on the Champions Tour since, with his opportunities dwindling and his results not good enough to give himself more chances.
Mason displayed that he’s still got game late last year, tying for second in the PGA Senior PNC, earning a spot in this year’s field for the Senior PGA Championship. It could be the last Champions Tour event for Mason, who has relished his time on the tour since his win in New Jersey 13 years ago.
“The end is near,” he admits, saying he will leave the tour “when I know that I definitely can’t compete at that level.
“My scores will tell me when it’s time to quit,” the 64-year-old Mason asserts. “But I just shot 12-under for four rounds and I still feel competitive. I still feel I’ve got enough game, but the access is so hard.
“It’s been a fantastic run. I never dreamed I’d do what I did. I can’t really put it into words.”
Mason has made 194 starts during his Champions Tour career with earnings of just over $3 million. He also made a dozen PGA Tour starts from 1977 to 2001, mostly in two of Georgia’s now defunct events – the Southern Open in Columbus and Callaway Gardens and the Atlanta Classic. He also made one start in the PGA Championship, playing at Winged Foot in 1997, but most of his recent tournament appearances are in Georgia PGA Section or Senior Division events.
He remains one of the state’s top senior players and is still very competitive in Section events, contending for victory several times the past few years.
And as always, Mason is a familiar figure on the golf course in his colorful array of knickers, which have been a staple of his wardrobe since the mid-1980s.
Mason’s family owned Sky Valley Resort in the northeast Georgia mountains from 1975-91, and he still resides in Dillard, while playing out of the Orchard, where he has taught over the years. After graduating from Auburn in 1973, Mason played as a tour pro before joining the Georgia PGA, working as a club professional and instructor before returning to a playing career when he turned 50.