My first trip to Desert Mountain was unforgettable. The main road from the entry gate wasn't yet completed. The Seventeen million dollar Cochise-Geronimo clubhouse was impressive, if only in the blue print phase and the temporary clubhouse, known as the 'Log Cabin' was among the most spectacular vistas I had ever seen in golf. Surrounded by mountains and looking down into the Valley of the Sun over largely undeveloped desert landscape, the panorama from the summit at Desert Mountain was equal to any view you might find at Augusta National or Pebble Beach.
I was immediately in love with the place and the people. Lyle Anderson had developed Desert Highlands and was instrumental in launching the first Skins Game at that very site. His course designer at Highlands was Jack Nicklaus and the two became fast friends. Sharing an uncompromising respect for the traditions of the game, the two men began brainstorming about the ingredients of a premium golf event. Jack was a few short years removed from the Senior Tour and Lyle decided that the over 50 set needed an event which would celebrate all the good things in the game; a senior version of The Masters, if you will. With his typical combination of foresight and moxie, Anderson named his new event The Tradition.
With a keen understanding of the game, Anderson knew there would never be a senior equivalent to the early April masterpiece, but he went about securing the talent he needed to stage the best possible senior tour event, and he spared no expense. He hired Western Golf Properties, headed by past Presidents of the PGA of America, Joe Black and Mark Kizziar to consult on all facets of the Club and event. He scoured the industry for the best club and tournament staff he could find to throw a shindig that could not be over looked. The inner sanctum of Anderson, Schneider, Nicklaus and Western Golf developed a structure that would ensure a wonderful tournament and a spectacular week.
The recipe was as follows: start with a terrific site; Desert Mountain has more natural beauty than a Victoria's Secret catalogue. Give them a tough, but fair test; Western Golf worked with the Senior Tour staff months ahead of time to create course conditions voted best on tour each of its first five years. Respect your forbearers; The Tradition field has special exemptions for Tradition Honorees, who are invited each year to Desert Mountain for a week of reminiscing, whether or not they compete. Focus on the event; no pro-ams or other obligations to detract from the pursuit of the trophy over four championship rounds. Corporate involvement was strictly limited; the pursuit of the trophy was all-important. Finally, throw a good party; crab claws in the locker room and filet on the buffet table (some honorees stayed until the following Tuesday).
The first event of the week was Tuesday's Honorees' Dinner. Anyone who has won a major championship on the Senior or PGA Tour is a lifelong Tradition Honoree. The dinner is attended by major championship winners and only a very small handful of Tradition/Desert Mountain executives and organizers. Wednesday marked the most wonderful, unpublicized day in golf. The few spectators who skipped work and drove the length of Pima Road were treated to a golf fantasy. In the morning, Honorees who would not be playing in The Tradition, would compete in an event known as the Grand Tradition, and was it ever Grand. Sam Snead, Billy Casper, Charlie Sifford and a host of others played the Cochise Course for a payday greater than some of their major championship victories, and thrilled the crowds once again. In the afternoon all the honorees, Tradition, Grand Tradition and non-competing, were invited to the Champions Clinic. Fourteen honorees would select a club and each would give the audience 3-5 minutes on how to hit certain shots. Imagine spending 45 minutes listening to Chi-Chi talk about wedge play, then Sam Snead hitting the 5 iron followed by Nicklaus with a one-iron and Arnold on the Driver. I've witnessed some of the greatest moments in the history of our game, and my Wednesday memories from the Tradition will always be among my most favorite.
So, the game plan was set, and in 1989 an oxymoron hit the Senior Tour the week after The Masters, the inaugural Tradition was played. Don Bies beat Gary Player by a stroke, and over the next 7 years the event was won by Jack Nicklaus (back-to-back twice), Lee Trevino, Raymond Floyd and Tom Shaw. All the effort and pedigree paid off. When the Senior Tour declared the four major championships, The Tradition was on the list. The Senior Open and PGA Seniors were no-brainers and the Senior TPC was the Tour owned and operated major that the Ponte Vedra crowd had always craved. The final tournament had to be one that stuck out of the crowd, and the Tradition answered the call. It was the classiest, purest, most picturesque tournament on the Senior Tour. The only drawback was actually one of its charms; the remote location made for a somewhat difficult trip, but the destination was absolutely worth it.
Most of the early ingredients of The Tradition remain. Desert Mountain is still a breathtaking venue; even with a somewhat more developed landscape. Corporate sponsorship exists, but only where they don't impact the feel of the event. The course remains a challenge and the operation is still exquisite. If you see a multi-colored tent or sagging gallery rope, email me. I'll refund the cost of your badge.
There is a golf gem hidden in the slopes of the mountains of North Scottsdale. It is The Tradition, and it is still the best event on the Senior Tour.
Editor's note: David Marr III was the Executive Director of The Tradition from 1993-1997.