By JOHN KEKIS
ENDICOTT, N.Y. – The Walrus walked away from the ninth green at En-Joie Golf Club midway through Thursday's pro-am, a smile creasing his tanned face as he autographed a few hats and programs.
Four years after he became the first member of the senior tour – and at age 50 the fifth-oldest player – to win a PGA Tour event, Craig Stadler was back on the course where he shot a 9-under 63 on the final round of the 2003 B.C. Open that gave him a stunning one-shot victory.
“When you win, they're all special,” Stadler said, recalling his 13th and final win on the PGA Tour. “I played here a lot. I enjoy playing here. It's a great sportsman's town. It's a fun little golf course.”
After a one-year hiatus, professional golf returns to En-Joie beginning Friday with a title sponsor when the Dick's Sporting Goods Open, a new stop on the Champions Tour, gets under way.
And if Stadler was happy to be back, nobody was happier to see him and the other 77 players who will vie for the title and a $240,000 winner's check than Alex Alexander.
Alexander is the executive director of Broome County Community Charities, and the man who convinced the PGA in 1971 that this small town on New York's Southern Tier could meet the demands of a regular stop on tour.
“It's wonderful for the people. I've never seen as many people out here for the pro-am,” he said. “I think the people are very happy, and if the people are happy, then I'm happy.”
The B.C. Open's future was placed in doubt when the PGA moved it opposite the British Open beginning in 2000, which assured it would be dominated by players at the lower reaches of the PGA money list or from the minor leagues of professional golf.
The quaint, small-town feel of the tournament was an anomaly on a circuit dominated by big-money corporate sponsors and network television contracts.
Before its demise, the B.C. Open had been staged annually at En-Joie since 1971. Named after the cartoon strip, the tournament struggled financially in one of the tour's smallest markets and never had a corporate sponsor.
Still, it managed to survive and raised more than $8 million for local charities before finally being eliminated after last year, a victim to the major modifications to the tour schedule that began in 2007.
And the final B.C. Open wasn't staged at En-Joie because of severe flooding in the region, a big disappointment for Alexander. Instead, it was moved about 90 miles to the northeast to Turning Stone Casino's Atunyote Golf Club, which so impressed the players and PGA staff that it was selected to host an event on the PGA's fall schedule beginning in September.
During the B.C. Open's long run, 13 players, including Jason Bohn two years ago, secured their first PGA Tour wins in the tournament. One of the first was Gil Morgan, whose triumph here 30 years ago was the first of his seven PGA wins.
“Being back is nice, a lot of memories,” said Morgan, who tees off late Friday morning. “It's fitting for the Champions Tour to be here. So many of our tour played here.”
Morgan easily recalled that memorable day in 1977.
“It was an exciting tournament for me,” said the 60-year-old Morgan, who has won over $22 million in his pro career. “I was pretty nervous down the stretch. I remember on the last hole I was just trying to hit it in the middle of the green and then two-putt. I hit it to about 25 feet and made it for a 3. It was kind of the icing on the cake.”
Divots: Tom Kite, who won the 1978 B.C. Open for his second victory on the PGA Tour, is back for the Champions Tour event, along with former B.C. Open winners Don Pooley (1980) and Wayne Levi (1984). … Famed golf instructor Butch Harmon was a PGA Tour player from 1969 to 1971, and his only win was the 1971 Broome County Open, which was renamed the B.C. Open in 1972.