Lee Elder of Washington took 18 years to earn $1 million on the regular PGA Tour. Since becoming eligible for the Senior PGA Tour last summer, the question seems to be when, not if, he will achieve that goal on the over-50 circuit.
Elder set a Senior PGA Tour record by shooting an 11-under-par 61 Saturday in Rhode Island in the first round of the Merrill Lynch/Golf Digest Pro-Am. In Sunday's final round, he sank a 15-foot eagle putt in a playoff against Peter Thomson to win the tournament and $27,000.
Yesterday, Elder was one of 11 PGA pros on hand at Springfield Golf and Country Club to play in the Ronald McDonald House Pro-Am. The tournament benefits the Washington Ronald McDonald House, which houses parents of seriously ill children hospitalized in the area.
Elder signed autographs and posed for pictures while shooting 69 in a round that included two birdies and 16 pars. PGA Tour rookie Mike Hulbert won low pro honors, making seven birdies for five-under-par 66. Ronnie Black, last year's Anheuser-Busch Classic winner, shot 67.
Since he turned 50 last July, Elder has won more than $300,000 on the seniors circuit, with four official wins, plus a $50,000 victory last year in a Tokyo tournament. He also won a new car, which he presented to his wife and manager Rose.
"I certainly am enjoying the senior tour," said Elder. "It's a lot more relaxing than the regular tour. Winning $1 million is one of my goals. The senior tour is going to get more competitive. It's becoming tougher and tougher. Gary Player and Chi Chi Rodriguez are coming out soon. In four or five years, (Jack) Nicklaus, (Lee) Trevino and (George) Archer will be out here, too.
Currently, Elder's main competition comes from Don January, Miller Barber, Gene Littler and Thomson. The Senior PGA Tour has grown from two tournaments five years ago to 26 this year and 30 next year.
"I think the reason it has grown is because a lot of people recognize the older players," Elder said. "They have been following us throughout our career. They tell us each week how much they enjoy it."
In his round of 61, Elder made 11 birdies, hit every fairway and used only 26 putts at the Newport Country Club, a 6,500-yard layout that was the site of the first U.S. Open.
Always a strong driver and iron player, Elder often has complained of poor putting. But he said yesterday he has been more successful on the greens since switching to a mallet-head putter a month ago.
"Some of the other pros couldn't believe I shot 61," Elder said. "They said, 'What hole did you skip?' When I was getting ready to putt on the 18th green (where he made birdie by sinking a 35-foot putt), Ken Still was walking up the other fairway and said, 'What golf course are you playing?' "
Elder said he hopes to win two tournaments a year, which he has done this year. "I'm really happy with my progress so far. I'm playing in a relaxed frame of mind. Shots that used to bother me don't bother me. If I make a bad shot, not as many players are going to pass me. Some of the players were calling me 'rookie' last year. Now they call me 'veteran.' It sounds a lot better to me."
Amateurs paid $500 and sponsoring corporations substantially more to help raise about $6,000 to $7,000 for Ronald McDonald House, according to tournament cochairman Steve Eckstrom.
Mark Alwin teamed with amateurs Charles Donohoe, Jim Kinnet, Dennis Alitz and Herb Brown to win the team prize with a net 118.