News & Opinion

Golf stars gain top billing over A-listers

Back when golf wasn’t cool but wished it were, those who wanted to spread the game’s gospel thought the way to bring golf to non-golfers was through the influence of famous people.

Celebrities such as Bing Crosby and Bob Hope were mad keen golfers. Crosby was a fine player and had a lot of friends in show business who liked golf, too. So, in 1937 he put together a tournament with pros and celebrities at Rancho Santa Fe Country Club in California, and it fondly was known as the Crosby Clambake.

Ten years later, the movable feast stopped at Pebble Beach and stayed there until 1985. Chock full of celebrities, it was a no-brainer for the new medium of television. In 1958, the Crosby Pro-Am was televised for the first time.

Comedian Phil Harris, always more or less inebriated at some level or another, wound up in the television booth every year, telling jokes and poking fun at his fellow swells. One year, Jim McKay of ABC uttered the famous line, “And now here’s Jack Lemmon, about to hit that all-important eighth shot.”

Other celebrities soon followed. Hope lent his name to Palm Springs’ PGA Tour stop in 1965, and the Bob Hope Desert Classic ran to 2011, eight years after his death. Andy Williams had his name attached to the San Diego event from 1968 to ’88; the Danny Thomas Memphis Classic was played in 1970-84; the Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic in 1972-80; and the Sammy Davis Jr. Greater Hartford Open in 1973-88.

The Crosby and the Hope were the only pro-am events. The Crosby featured one pro and one amateur for three rounds, and those who made the amateur cut played the final round at Pebble Beach. The Hope went five rounds, and amateurs played the first four rounds.

People couldn’t tell DeWitt Weaver from George Archer or pick Tommy Aaron out of a lineup, but they knew who Sammy Davis Jr. was. Davis was part of the Rat Pack, hung out with Sinatra in Vegas and wherever. 

The belief was that if Hope or Crosby or Gleason thinks golf is hip, well, then maybe it is. Only two PGA Tour players were considered celebrities: Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, the former much more so than the latter.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, the golf landscape changed. Because of television and Palmer, the Tour players were becoming well known, and some were even outright famous. Golf didn’t need celebrities to sell the game any longer. The players were doing just fine.

And that’s when big corporate sponsors believed that investing in professional golf was not just good for the game but was good for business. AT&T took over as title sponsor at Pebble Beach in 1986 and has been there ever since. The Hope is now sponsored by CareerBuilder and has been trimmed to four rounds. The 59th edition begins Thursday at PGA West’s Stadium Course in La Quinta, Calif.

Farmers Insurance is in San Diego, FedEx and St. Jude Children’s Hospital are in Memphis, the Gleason is now the Honda Classic and Travelers is the title sponsor in Hartford.

Justin Timberlake lent his name and talents to the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in Las Vegas from 2008 to ’12, but the tournament is just as big without him.

And even at the big pro-am events, the bar is becoming lower and lower for what organizers consider “celebrities.” There is a reason for that.

When a celebrity ventures out of his circle of influence and enters the bubble of the golf course, he or she becomes hopelessly human – and vulnerable, therefore no longer larger than life. And maybe that’s not a good thing.

Sure, we’d like to know that golf does evil things to the psyches of famous people in the same way it torments us. But would you rather know Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry or the schlub who can’t get the ball over the ravine on No. 8 at Pebble Beach?

Maybe that’s why fewer and fewer A-listers play in the big pro-am events at Pebble Beach and Palm Springs. They don’t feel the need to expose their fragile golf games in front of the paying public and millions of TV viewers. Who can blame them?

It’s really better for the professional game because the players are the show, and rightly so. Want a glimpse of someone famous for something other than golf? Check out the Wednesday pro-am. But Thursday through Sunday, there are plenty of famous people butting heads for a $1 million check.

Even legitimate celebrities can’t duplicate that.

Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: golfedit@gmail.com; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf