Knowing when it's time to give up on the PGA Tour and hang with the over-50 crowd

Ernie Els is going to start playing more golf with the over-50 crowd. AP Photo/David J. Phillip

PHOENIX -- Lee Janzen sat at a dinner for past U.S. Open champions at this year's tournament at Pebble Beach and listened to someone from each table stand up and give a speech. Afterward, he realized he should've been the one to represent his table so he could thank Brooks Koepka publicly for showing him it was time to start playing on the PGA Tour Champions.

Janzen played with Koepka in the final round of the 2014 Wyndham Championship at Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro, North Carolina, in Janzen's final PGA Tour event before he turned 50 on Aug. 28.

"He made the course look like it was a joke," said Janzen as he strolled down the first fairway at Phoenix Country Club on the morning before the Charles Schwab Cup Championship -- the Champions Tour's final event -- was set to begin. "All the bunkers are in play for me, and he's just flying them -- way over them -- and he's hitting hybrid off the tee and outdriving me and hitting it close and hitting wedges. If he had made any putts, he would've shot 58 or 59."

"I was just like, 'How am I going to beat him? I am so glad I'm going to play with guys my age,'" said Janzen, a two-time U.S. Open champion who also won nine other events.

At one point in their careers, all golfers on the PGA Tour Champions have had a moment -- the moment -- in which they knew it was time to leave the PGA Tour.

Ernie Els will become one of the newest members of the Champions Tour this week when he makes his debut at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship in Hawaii. Els, who turned 50 in October -- you have to be 50 to play on the Champions Tour -- has 71 wins around the world, including U.S. Open and Open titles. He won't be the only Champions Tour rookie. Joining him in 2020 will be Jim Furyk, Tim Herron, K.J. Choi and Rich Beem. Phil Mickelson will turn 50 on Father's Day, but he has been noncommittal about whether he will be play some or any Champions Tour events.

"I know the camaraderie and competition will provide a lot of excitement for our fans," Els said.

For all, signing up for the Champions Tour was a choice. For most, though, it was the only way they'd be able to keep playing professionally. Each, however, has his own story about when he knew it was time to move on from the PGA Tour and kick back on the Champions Tour -- or so these players thought.

"A lot of the guys -- I can speak for 99% of them -- on their 50th birthday, the day they turned 50, that's when it's time to go," Colin Montgomerie said. "Oh, God, yeah. And I was similar. I turned 50 on June 23, 2013, and I played on the 25th.

"We can't wait to get here."

Kent Jones went through the exact same thing as Janzen, but on the Korn Ferry Tour, on which he was playing easier courses but the competition kept getting tougher.

"They were already hitting it so much further," Jones said, "so, it was like just no fun."

That's the decision when you turn 50: to go or not to go to the Champions Tour. If they so choose, awaiting them on the Champions Tour will be, to some degree, a scaled-back version of their current tour.

There are 27 events on the Champions Tour schedule, which is contained to the calendar year, a far cry from the 54 tournaments on the PGA Tour's schedule, which starts in October and finishes in August. The purses aren't as big. The largest payout to a winner this past season was $720,000. Only six PGA Tour events pay out less than $1 million to its winners.

Rocco Mediate points out it also is quieter on the Champions Tour than on the PGA Tour. The crowds are smaller and typically older.

"I think that everyone chills out a little bit," Brandt Jobe said.

Champions Tour events are typically three days, "a 100-meter sprint as opposed to a marathon," Montgomerie said.

Still, the events are played on some of the best courses in the country, such as Pebble Beach and Firestone Country Club. However, most play a tad shorter than when those venues host PGA Tour events, and there is a little less rough, Jobe said. Plus, the pressure, stress, rigor and ultra-ultra-competitiveness of the PGA Tour are long gone. The Champions Tour is like watching your favorite band in a smaller venue after their days of touring stadiums are over.

"We're talking about the greatest players that ever walked on grass out here," Mediate said. "I can't believe we don't have 100,000 [fans] a week. I'd come watch.

"Think about who we have out here."

But in the end, life on the Champions Tour is just easier.

When Miguel Angel Jimenez walked to the first tee at Phoenix Country Club last month to start a practice round two days before the Charles Schwab Cup Championship, he had a cigar dangling from his mouth and was wearing perfectly pressed shorts. There were a dozen or so people milling around -- most oblivious to the 34-time winner who has earned more than $34.3 million -- when Jimenez welcomed a reporter on the tee box moments before teeing off. Jimenez smacked his tee shot and took off down the fairway puffing his cigar for another good walk on another good course on another good day.

Such is life on the Champions Tour.

Jimenez slowly transitioned to the Champions Tour after turning 50 in 2014. That year, he still played full time in regular tour in Europe. A year later, he played three or four times on the Champions Tour while still playing full time in Europe. In 2016, he played 13 tournaments in Europe and 13 on the Champions Tour. By 2017, he was full time on the Champions Tour.

"I don't want to play full time now with the young," Jimenez said. "I want to make full time here and play six, seven times a year on the regular tour."

It's hard to blame him.

"Look at it," Montgomerie said as scanned the scene while walking down the middle of the fairway. "We're playing for $2.5 million.

"You're in the sunshine -- this tour follows the sunshine -- you're playing PGA Tour-rated courses, you're part of PGA Tour, they've grown every department, the whole scene, the whole thing in merchandising, the whole thing. Why not? Why not? So, that's when you know."

The most surprising part to many on the Champions Tour is the competitiveness. This isn't a bunch of old fogies playing their favorite muni on Sunday morning.

"I didn't expect the quality of play to be as good as it is," Jobe said. "There's a lot of guys that play really good -- some of them, I think, every bit as good or better than what they played on tour -- and that's what's surprising is how good the scoring is."

Montgomerie thought the same thing.

"You got to be scoring 65s, 66s or else you can forget it," Montgomerie said.

Jobe, 54, was ready to never play competitively again about six years ago. He still had his PGA Tour card but had blown out his shoulder. Three surgeries later, Jobe was told his playing days were over. Doctors said he could play with his buddies on the weekends but that he would need a new career. He was about to move to Nashville to start a job in distributing when he went to the range one more time. He felt great, swinging like he was 25. But he knew he couldn't push himself like he did on the PGA Tour, so he headed to the Champions Tour when he turned 50.

On tour now, Jobe -- like his counterparts -- still gets the rush of competitive golf. They still play the tips at times. They still aim low.

Not much has changed on the course, Mediate said.

"I'm playing against the same guys that I played with my whole life," he said. "It's funny. The guys that outdrove you 30 yards on a regular tour still outdrive you 30 yards out here. The guys that beat the s--- out of you regularly on the regular tour beat the s--- out of you out here. Funny how that hasn't changed."

In Mediate's case, he said he had no choice but to play on the Champions Tour if he wanted to continue his career. Now he is playing some of the best golf of his life. He is driving 260 to 265 yards off the tee -- he claims he was never a long hitter during his regular tour days -- and he feels like he is putting and pitching better.

"I wish I putted and pitched better out [on the PGA Tour]," Mediate said. "I would've won maybe a handful more tournaments. Not 50, maybe a handful more and maybe one of those big ones."

When it came time to make the decision, some like Mediate and Janzen had to choose between playing a handful of tournaments a year, which would take potential spots away from young guys, who, like they were at one point, are trying to make a career for themselves and ignoring the pull of the bright lights of PGA Tour events to play consistently on the Champions Tour. Mediate still misses the PGA Tour, especially the noise.

There still is a feeling gnawing away at Janzen, who last made a cut on the PGA Tour in 2015 and plays in past-champion categories now.

"I think, for me, and I'm sure the other guys feel the same way, it's like, I still want to know where I stack up," he said. "And actually, I technically hit the ball as well as I ever have, if not better. At least I have a better understanding. I chip and putt just as well. I just don't hit it far enough, so that would make competing out there very hard."

When Mickelson turns 50 on June 16, he'll be like every other PGA Tour golfer at that age: Facing a career-changing decision.

Mediate doesn't think Mickelson will make the jump immediately -- but will eventually. If Mickelson ever decides to play on the Champions Tour, the players who faced him for the past 20 or 30 years will be waiting with open arms.

"I think K.J. Choi is looking forward to it. I think Mike Weir is looking forward to it, as well. Ernie Els, Jim Furyk, Phil Mickelson," Montgomerie said. "There's a number coming through this year. We've got a good 2020 group coming through, and let's hope they play; because if you get Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Jim Furyk playing out here, it does add to the [gravitas] of the event.

"It makes them bigger, better events. And yeah, we look forward to them coming out, because, hey, who knows, they gotta bring their A game with them. We know that. We know that."