Tommy Armour eyes PGA Tour's riches

LA QUINTA, Calif. -- For most of his 30 years as a golf professional, Tommy Armour III has been best known as a cigarette-smoking playboy with a famous name and Hollywood friends. Raised in Las Vegas off the third hole of the Desert Inn Country Club, where all the stars from the strip came to play golf and unwind over cocktails, Armour would have been comfortable as the sixth member of the Rat Pack. He's not name dropping when he tells you that he's stayed at his pal George Clooney's villa in Italy. For several years, he threw a lavish party during the week of the Byron Nelson Championship at his Dallas home, where he served sushi on naked models.

Those hard-partying days are mostly behind him now. He quit smoking last November and hasn't had a drink during a tournament week for many years.

At 52 years old and a member of the Champions Tour since 2010, Armour has his sights on regaining his card-carrying status this week at the PGA Tour Qualifying tournament, held at PGA West on the Nicklaus Tournament and Stadium courses. After two solid years on the senior circuit, where he doesn't have to worry about making cuts or keeping up with 25-year-old kids who hit 340-yard drives, why would he submit himself to six grueling rounds on a couple of very demanding golf courses at what is typically a glacial pace of play?

"I just wanted to see if I could do it," said Armour, a two-time winner on the PGA Tour. "I've got a job next year playing on the Champions Tour.

"There is more money on the PGA Tour. There is more of everything."

His younger brother Sandy explained their preference for the PGA Tour in simple math.

"Most of the Champions Tour tournaments are like playing a three-day Bob Hope," said Sandy, who is 50. "If you finish 20th out there, you're going to make $18,000 to $23,000. If you finish 20th on the regular tour, you're going to make $50 to $70,000.

"If you shoot 12 under par on the regular tour, you're going to make $50,000 to $60,000; if you shoot that on the Champions Tour you're going to make $20,000."

In his search for more of everything, Armour shot a first round 3-over 75 on Wednesday on the 7,204-yard PGA West Nicklaus Tournament course. He had one birdie, two bogeys and double bogey on a perfect day for scoring.

At 153rd place, Armour will have a long, hard climb the next five days if he wants to be one of the 25 plus ties to get his tour card. He made to it the finals of Q-school by winning his second stage qualifier at the Hombre Golf Club in Panama City, Fla.

Since turning pro out of the University of New Mexico in 1981, Armour has earned his PGA Tour card four times through Q-school. Though he had some success on the regular tour -- wins at the '90 Phoenix Open and the 2003 Valero Texas Open -- he had his best years on the tour in his late 40s.

"I was a better player in my late 40s than I was in my 20s and 30s," he admitted.

Mostly with the help of Sandy, who doubled as his caddie and swing teacher, along with mental coach Gio Valiante, Armour became a new player. Off the strength of a tie for second at the Travelers Championship in 2008, he made $1.5 million at 48, the best earning year of his career.

In his first year on the Champions Tour in 2010, he had 10 top-10 finishes in 23 events. But he looked like a different player at the beginning of 2011.

"I was playing terrible," Armour said. "I was hitting the ball poorly. My swing had gotten a little too much inside to out. I've tried to take a lot of the sidespin off the ball and just hit it a lot straighter."

To fix his swing, he got the help of former teachers Hank Haney and Mike Bennett. Then he and Sandy would put a plan together to implement the changes. By August he was playing more consistent golf and a second-place finish at the Insperity Championship in October locked up his place at the season-ending Charles Schwab Cup Championship, where he finished in last place at 30th after an opening-round 78.

A smoker since his late teens, Armour dropped the habit for good in November 2010 after making several attempts over the years to stop. But it came with a cost. He gained some weight and his body changed. And according to Sandy, he became more temperamental and aggressive, but he recently celebrated his one-year anniversary without a cigarette.

Armour is the oldest player in the Q-school field, but the allure of PGA Tour money is enough to keep him plowing ahead against all the young guns.

"I've lost a little distance but I'm not pathetically short by any means," Armour said. "I think that I can still play with these kids. Nobody right now dominates the way Tiger did the last 10 years. But there are a lot of guys playing really good. I still think that I can be one of those players."

Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at evans.espn@gmail.com.