Wednesday, February 11

The Crosby: When Golf Went Big Time

By John Coyne

Copyright © John Coyne. All rights reserved. Used with permission.


STARE DOWN THE LONG FAIRWAY of professional golf history and ask yourself this question: what made professional golf such a big time business?

Most players might say, "When television met Arnold Palmer."

All of us would agree that the matchup between TV and "The King" made golf a great spectator sport. Who can forget those black-and-white television images of Palmer coming out of the pack late on a Sunday afternoon, hitching his pants as he charged down the final fairways, a cigarette clinched in his lips? He made us all feel that we too could break par on our next round, if only we could master the way Palmer hitched up his slacks.

Birth of the Crosby

Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. (USGA Museum)
I will, however, raise my hand in favor of another golfer who had a great deal to make golf what it is today. This player was an amateur who in the summer of 1934 staged a friendly golf outing for a group of friends on a 12-hole golf course near Lake Tahoe, California, then a year later moved his event to near San Diego, The new golf course site was Rancho Santa and next he added "Pro-Am" to the title and then in 1937 officially created the first celebrity pro-am tournament, naming it after himself, the Bing Crosby Rancho Santa Fe Pro-Am.

Crosby would write in Dwayne Netland's book about his tournament, "In the early thirties ... I joined a golf club called Lakeside. A very good course indeed, located out in North Hollywood. The membership was composed almost entirely of fellas in the entertainment business ... I was struck by the idea of putting together a pro-am competition where the Lakeside members ... could partner fifty or sixty invited professionals in a best ball event ... At that time I had a home and a small ranch down in San Diego County, near a nice golf course called Rancho Santa Fe, in the same region where I was involved in building and maintaining a race track known as Del Mar."

The 1937 event was only 18-holes and the winner received $500. Sam Snead won. When Bing presented the winner's check to him, Snead, fresh out of West Virginia, asked, "If it's all the same to you, I'd rather have the cash."

A year later, with the tournament lengthened to 36-holes, Snead won again. The tournament continued to be played in Southern California through 1942. Then, after the war in '47, it was resumed as a 54-hole event, but played farther up the California coast near Monterey.

Today the same tournament is 72 holes, but is no longer named after its founder. It is now the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am and the current purse of $6.8 million, a long way from $500. (I wonder if Sam would still want his winnings in cash.)

The tournament was nicknamed the "Crosby Clambake" and was in the fifties and early sixties the first big tournament of golf's winter season. This was before the pros discovered Hawaii.

Spectators and TV fans could always count on California rainy February bad weather and movie stars hacking up the course. All the stars wanted to play the Crosby. Jack Lemmon said he would rather make the cut at the Crosby than win an Oscar. Over the years the same celebrities teamed up with their favorite pros to play at least two rounds of the pro-am. They included Bob Hope, Clint Eastwood, Bill Murray, Kevin Costner, Steve Young, George Lopez, Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, Carson Daly and Jim Backus, who did make the 36-hole cut in 1964.

Herb Graffis, former editor and founder of Golfing magazine, writes in his extraordinary history of the PGA, that "Crosby established the celebrity pro-amateur tournament in his characteristically casual way.… he made golf the sport that made the greatest financial contribution to a multitude of worthy causes."

 According to Graffis, Crosby did three things that made tournament golf big business.

"He introduced the celebrity pro-am tournament as a preliminary instead of the tired and dull shot-making demonstration called a clinic. He got a lot of colorful hams as an added attraction, and as expected, they brought into the paid-admission category fans who have the idea that golf is fun. And by giving the proceeds to charity on a good, sound tax-exempt basis and tipping other show business people off on how to get under the tent for publicity and stooping for millions in charity, Crosby really established tournament golf."

And for that, Graffis added, "he got no credit from the professionals."

Life in Golf

Crosby first played golf as a 12-year old caddie growing up in Spokane, Washington, where he earned 50 cents carrying a bag for 18-holes. When he left the caddie ranks, he stopped playing and only picked up the game again in 1930 with some fellow cast members in Hollywood during the filming of "The King of Jazz."

As an adult he played to a two-handicap and competed in both the British and U.S. Amateur championships, and was also the five-time club champion at his home course, Lakeside Golf Club.

Later, Crosby and Jimmy Demaret launched the Legends of Golf Tournament at the Onion Creek Club in Austin, Texas, which sparked interest in the Senior PGA Tour. One of his sons, Nathaniel, would grow up to win the 1981 U.S. Amateur at the Olympic Club in San Francisco.

Bing played his last round in the fall of 1977. While in England on a singing tour with Rosemary Clooney, he took time off to fly to Spain. There, on the 14th of October, he played eighteen at La Moraleja Golf Course near Madrid with partner, World Cup champion Manuel Piñero; their opponents were club president Cesar de Zulueta and golf professional Valentin Barrios.

According to Barrios, Crosby was in good spirits throughout the day, and was photographed several times during the round. At the ninth hole, construction workers building a house nearby recognized him, and when asked for a song, Crosby sang "Strangers in the Night."

Crosby, who by then had a 13 handicap, shot 85, and with his partner won the match by one stroke.

As they headed to the clubhouse, Crosby remarked, "That was a great game of golf, fellas," and then suffered a massive heart attack and collapsed on the lawn. He died only a short chip shot from the clubhouse entrance.

It was the end of the Crosby Clambake. While his family continued the tournament for a few years, they had a falling out with AT&T, which took over the tournament and became the title sponsor in 1986. Bing Crosby was the first to have a celebrity tournament, but others followed and now all have faded away.

Celebrities are listed in alphabetical order:
Glen Campbell Los Angeles Open, 1971-83
Bing Crosby Professional-Amateur, 1937-1985
Sammy Davis Jr., Greater Hartford Open, 1973-1988
Joe Garagiola, Tucson Open, 1977-83
The Gatlin Brothers, Southwest Golf Classic, 1988
Jackie Gleason,Inverrary Classic, 1972-80
Bob Hope, Chrysler Classic, 1965-2012
Dean Martin, Tucson Open, 1972-75
Ed McMahon, Jaycees Quad Cities Open, 1975-79
Frank Sinatra, Palm Spring, 1963

John Coyne is a bestselling author whose latest golf novel is The Caddie Who Won the Masters. Learn more at John Coyne Books.

No comments :