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Field of Dreamers

On the afternoon before the Monday qualifier for the 2002 Senior PGA Tour's Long Island Lightpath Classic, Norm Jarvis, a tall, freckle-faced fifty-year-old part-time teaching pro from Canada, pulled up to the halfway house on the Red course at Bethpage State Park. He reached in his hip pocket for his wallet, which contained his ID, visa and a wad of cash. It wasn't there. He rummaged frantically through the outside pockets of his brand-new golf bag. His wallet wasn't there, either.

"I was an alien," Jarvis recalls as he describes what truly qualified as a senior moment. "All I could think about was how I was going to get out of the country."

Jarvis's traveling buddy Gale Kersenbrock looked on with a mixture of sympathetic concern and spiritual calm. A former high-school middle linebacker from Wyoming with gray hair and a distinctive goatee, the fifty-two-year-old Kersenbrock stands six-foot-four, weighs 249 pounds and launches tee shots measured in long-drive competitions at 386 yards. Married and the father of six children, he also happens to be pastor of the evangelical Word of Grace Church in Las Vegas.

Immediately after completing their practice round on the Red course, Jarvis and Kersenbrock hurried inside the Bethpage clubhouse, where they filed a police report. Then Kersenbrock said a quiet prayer and encouraged Jarvis to search through his golf bag one more time. Lo and behold, the wallet turned up in one of the half-hidden inside pockets.

The next day, Jarvis fired a sixty-four to take medalist honors and one of three available qualifying spots for the Lightpath tournament. The make-or-break shot came on the next-to-last hole when he chipped in for a birdie after pounding a six-iron over the green. "If I hadn't found that wallet," Jarvis says, "there's no way I could have qualified."

"I believe it was a sign," declares Kersenbrock, who shot a seventy-three in the qualifier. "Norm finds his wallet at the last moment, after we've already filed a police report, and then he turns a potential bogey into a birdie by holing a chip on seventeen. It doesn't get any better than that."

As any Champions Tour wanna-be can attest, it often takes what seems like an act of divine intervention to make it through a Monday qualifier. There are few if any tougher hurdles to clear in professional sports. The field for most Champions (né Senior) Tour tournaments is limited to seventy-eight spots, the vast majority of which are reserved for players who are already exempt from qualifying on the basis of their lifetime earnings on the PGA Tour or their winnings on the Champions Tour. Only eight fully exempt spots and eight conditional spots are available to low finishers in the annual two-stage Champions Tour qualifying school tournament.

Ordinarily, four spots are available to Monday qualifiers for each week's Champions Tour event. But by the time the Lightpath qualifier rolled around, there were only three spots available. That was because James Mason, a former teaching and club pro from Dillard, Georgia, had made it through Monday qualifying for the NFL Classic earlier in the year and had then gone on to win the full-field tournament, thus earning a year's exemption. Rather than cut one of the spots reserved for previously exempt veterans, one of the Monday qualifying spots was eliminated.

The Monday qualifying system is controversial to say the least for it strikes at one of the main issues surrounding the nature of the Champions Tour. Should it be mainly an exhibition tour dominated by veteran "name" players who compete for what some critics call a guaranteed pension?(There is no cut in a typical three-day Champions Tour event, so all participants are assured of earning at least a few hundred dollars. First prize is as much as $440,000.) Or should it be a nonexempt tour that aims to attract the best players over the age of fifty regardless of their past performances—or total lack thereof—on the PGA Tour?

Not surprisingly, Jay Overton, a smooth swinging, fiercely competitive club pro based at the Westin Innisbrook resort outside Tampa, Florida, takes the latter view. Overton won over $400,000 in the eighteen months preceding the Lightpath qualifier, often gaining entry to tournaments through the Monday qualifying route. He captured the last of the three spots available at Bethpage in a seven-hole play-off. "The tour may perceive itself as an exhibition," he says. "But when you're playing for purses of $2.5 million each week, it's a business, and the guys out here take it as a business."

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