By Brian Keogh
Watching golf on the European Seniors Tour is a bit like being stuck at your school reunion dinner - you don’t really want to be there in the first place and all the people you really wanted to see again are either dead or too busy making money America.
A grey and damp Irish Seniors Open was ‘saved’ recently by the rotund shape of Italian Costantino Rocca two-putting from somewhere just outside of Bergamo to hold off - contain yourself now - Juan Quiros and Kevin Spurgeon on a day when any self-respecting sports fan was at Croke Park watching Dublin and Meath knock the living daylights out of each other in the Leinster Championship.
And therein lies the problem for the over 50s circuit in Europe. While Rocca is not exactly a household name in downtown Johnstown, Co Kildare, he was made to look like Tiger Woods by the sheer ordinariness of the chasing bunch.
When Sam Torrance, Eamonn Darcy and Denis O’Sullivan are three of your star turns - three perfectly fine players in their own right - they are unlikely to power more than a 60 watt bulb with their collective charisma.
Add to that the fact that they were mere bit part players on a depressingly wet Irish day and you can see why the European Seniors Tour will struggle to survive without a massive injection of new blood.
Suprgeon’s claim to fame is that his late father, Keith, was manager of Ajax in the early 70s used to have childhood kickabouts with a young Johan Cruyff.
Alas, that gem was buried in the depths of the Media Guide. And anyway, by the time Spurgeon was making his bid for the title, former Ryder Cup great and Augusta National course record holder Maurice Bembridge was lamenting the fact that he simply can’t make a bean on the wrinklies circuit these days.
Millionaire Torrance has no sympathy for him though. Or the rest of the rank and file European Seniors Tour players who feel under appreciated and under paid for their efforts.
But it was worth noting that Bembridge - as mild-mannered and self-effacing a man as you are likely to find anywhere in golf - is so frustrated by his lack of earning power that he made his feelings know to the tour’s CEO George O’Grady and went as far as describing life on the over-50s tour as something akin to "slave labour."
Torrance, who earned and average of almost €10,000 for every one of his record 701 European Tour appearance, had just one message for the man who closed with a course record equalling 64 at Augusta to share ninth place in 1974 - “Play better!”
Rich indeed, coming from a man whose best effort from four appearances at the Masters was an exceedingly modest 71.
Like Torrance, Bembridge has played his part in making the European Tour the success it is today. Yet while their American counterparts play for a total prize fund of more than $54 million on the US Champions Tour, the old guns in Europe are scrambling for their share of an average weekly pot of less than €300,000.
Torrance, of course, has a point. But it is still worth noting that the pro-am appearances that are the life-blood of the European Seniors Tour, go largely unrewarded.
“We really should go the European Commission and say this is slave labour because if you relate the time people put in relative to the amount they get out, it works out about £2.50 an hour,” said Bembridge, who earned € 427.50 for 74th place in Ireland and €226 for finishing 70th from a field of 76 in Jersey the following week.
“Minimum wage is about six quid or something. Only the top 20 can make a living. And we’d just like to create an awareness of that situation. That actually we are not all millionaires and play just for fun.”
Torrance is a millionaire with career earnings on the main tour of €7.14 million and another € 776,665 from just two seasons on the Seniors Tour.
By contrast, 62-year-old Bembridge has earned just €61,000 for his last two campaigns on the European Seniors Tour and with annual expenses approaching €25,000 it doesn't take a genius to work out that he his average weekly profit is less than €300 a week.
"That's the way it was when I started in 1972," said Torrance after his appearance in the AIB Irish Seniors Open, where his share of 14th place earned him €14,580. "Play better is all I'll say."
Soaked to the skin after finishing last of the professionals in the AIB event, Bembridge said: “Sometimes we have difficulty filling the field, getting 72 players, because people say it’s too expensive. Coming to Ireland is too expensive.”
The fans don’t care how much money it costs the professionals to play. But if things don’t improve soon, watching them suffer may well become a thing of the past.