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When the Senior PGA Tour began as an actual sanctioned tour in 1980, it was seen by most golf fans as a chance to watch old favorites play against each other. And it was a chance for players who might have drifted away from competitiveness in their later 40s to feel like rookies again the minute they turned 50. It happened for players like Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Lee Trevino.
But the Senior PGA Tour, now called the PGA Tour Champions, was also a chance for strong golfers who never did much on the PGA Tour to get a second chance at being winners in big-time professional events. Such a player was California’s Jimmy Powell.
Powell, who died Jan. 16 in La Quinta, California — the day before his 86th birthday — of what the PGA Tour said was kidney failure, never won on the PGA Tour. While playing in a few PGA Tour events and even two full years on the tour, Powell spent most of the 1960s and 1970s as a talented club professional and teacher at courses like Indian Hills Golf Club in Riverside, Via Verde Country Club in San Dimas and Stevens Park Golf Course in Dallas. And he was still an accomplished player, winning the Southern California PGA Championship three times.
Powell eventually joined the senior tour in 1985 and impressed fellow players with his game and his knowledge of the swing.
“He was always working on his swing,” said long-time Powell friend Al Geiberger. “He really knew the golf swing, We’ve lost a lot of knowledge of the golf swing.”
Geiberger played against Powell on the senior tour and with Powell in senior divisions of the Legends of Golf tournament. Powell won the senior division of that event twice, his two unofficial wins on the tour. But he also had four official wins, the first in 1990 and the last in 1996.
“He hung around that group from Dallas, Hogan and Nelson and a lot of names like that,” Geiberger said of Powell’s background. “A lot of teaching came out of Dallas.”
By 2000, Powell was playing fewer than a dozen tournaments on the tour, and just a few years after that he was playing only a handful of tournaments. His last official start on the PGA Tour Champions was in 2008. But he had taken advantage of his second chance at tour success and done well. And he did it all with rugged good looks that Geiberger would joke that Powell should have been a television cowboy star instead of a golf pro.
In recent years, Powell was fighting not for another trophy but for himself and a handful of players who he believed had fallen through the cracks in the PGA Tour’s pension system. While the PGA Tour had pension plans for players who started on the senior tour in the early 1980s and in the mid-1990s and later, Powell, Geiberger and a group of players like Powell friend Gibby Gilbert felt they had been left out.
“Jimmy was a big fighter for fairness,” Geiberger said. “We talked a lot about that. Jimmy knew how much money the PGA Tour had for a non-profit and where the money was. I think he was a thorn in the tour’s side.”
Jimmy Powell, left, and partner Al Geiberger hold their trophies after winning first place in the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf Demaret Division at The Club at Savannah Harbor.
It was just a few months ago that Geiberger last saw Powell at The Palms Golf Club in La Quinta, where Geiberger’s son was hosting an annual tournament. Neither Powell nor Geiberger played because of the aches and pains 80-year-old golfers feel. But Geiberger was impressed that Powell was still talking about golf and the swing.
“We sat and talked for about an hour,’ Geiberger said. “He was still talking about, well, we’re getting older, we get weaker shafts. He was really technically about the weaker senior shaft.”
Golf is a game of a lifetime, and for Jimmy Powell, it was a game that he never left.
Larry Bohannan is the golf writer for the Palm Springs Desert Sun. He can be reached at (760) 778-4633 or email@example.com. Follow him on Facebook or on Twitter at @Larry_Bohannan.