News & Opinion

Early Crosby event lured A-list amateurs

Since 1937, when entertainer Bing Crosby first invited his friends and professional golfers to the California coast for a winter golf gathering, amateurs have played starring roles in what was known as the Bing Crosby Pro-Am

Since 1937, when entertainer Bing Crosby first invited his friends and professional golfers to the California coast for a winter golf gathering, amateurs have played starring roles in what was known as the Bing Crosby Pro-Am.

At this week’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, show-business celebrities and corporate chiefs primarily will compose the amateur field alongside their world-class playing partners from the PGA Tour. But the amateur hit-and-giggle crowd didn’t always dominate what came to be known fondly as “The Crosby Clambake.” In fact, Crosby, the late singer/actor of “White Christmas” fame, once assembled a field of outstanding amateur talent that rivaled his A-list roster of singers and movie stars for career achievement.

In 1942, amateur Johnny Dawson, who played off a plus-2 handicap, won the Crosby outright at its original home at Rancho Santa Fe Country Club near San Diego. Dawson and professional partner Harry Cooper also claimed the pro-am title. In fact, Dawson carried Cooper, shooting 133 in the 36-hole event, 14 strokes better than his pro. As the tournament grew in stature, more professionals and amateurs wanted to play.

In 1954, with “the Crosby” having moved up the coast seven years earlier to its iconic current home on the Monterey Peninsula and expanded to 54 holes, Crosby assembled quite a roster of amateurs. Foremost among them: reigning U.S. Amateur champion Gene Littler; 1952 British Amateur winner Harvie Ward; San Francisco city champion Ken Venturi; and singer Don Cherry, who won the 1953 Canadian Amateur and played on the 1953 Walker Cup team.

Several celebrity amateur invitees in 1954 also were good players who carried single-digit handicaps: actors Gordon MacRae, Van Johnson, Randolph Scott and Johnny Weissmuller; baseball’s Bob Lemon and Lefty O’Doul; bandleader/singer/actor Phil Harris and Crosby singing/movie-star buddy Bob Hope.

Compare that background with some of this week’s amateurs as their televised errant shots skitter off cliffside holes and into Stillwater Cove.

Crosby, who put up the $3,000 purse for the inaugural 18-hole event, which Sam Snead won and earned $500, played in the early tournaments. By 1954, Crosby was not in the field because of his responsibilities as host. Crosby was an excellent amateur player in his own right, having qualified for the 1940 U.S. Amateur and the 1950 British Amateur. He played off a 2 handicap at Los Angeles’ Lakeside Country Club, where he was a five-time club champion. (As an aside, his son Nathaniel grew up to win the 1981 U.S. Amateur and will captain this year’s U.S. Walker Cup team.)

Those mid-century fields featured serious golfers, but Crosby’s Clambake was famous for its parties as well as the golf. The society editor of The San Francisco Examiner devoted a long column in 1954 to a listing of the various cocktail parties, dinner parties and dinner dances held during the tournament, with lists of the notable attendees. It was said that the Crosby spawned more parties than a French election.

And there was a lot of fun on the golf course. Professional Ed “Porky” Oliver had trouble at the famous par-3 16th hole at Cypress Point, where a 200-yard carry is required over the Pacific Ocean to a peninsula green guarded by bunkers, rocks and ice plant. Oliver posted a disastrous 16 on the hole. When he returned to the clubhouse at the end of his round, a telephone message awaited him: “Call long distance operator 16.” His friends got a laugh even if Oliver didn’t.

Actor/comedian Phil Harris, who always was quick with a joke or a prank, had himself announced as “Mr. Alice Faye [his wife], the pro from Jack Daniel’s Country Club.” Weissmuller, the former Olympic swimmer who played Tarzan on the big and small screens, had to climb a tree to hit a ball stuck in some branches; after knocking his ball out, he swung down from the tree with his famous Tarzan yell from the movies. Bob Hope offered to lower Jackie Burke by rope over the cliff at Pebble Beach to retrieve Burke’s ball. And the galleries liked the humor and banter as much as the golf.

CBS provided radio coverage of the 1954 tournament via short 15-minute segments hosted by John Derr, with Crosby providing the color commentary. A national telecast of the tournament still was four years away, but local TV carried a half-hour segment on Sunday evening, with highlights and a golf skit with Crosby and Frank Sinatra.

E.J. “Dutch” Harrison won the 1954 Crosby with a 54-hole total of 210 to take the $2,000 first prize. The top amateurs acquitted themselves nicely. Littler and his professional partner, Art Wall, finished joint first in the pro-am with 193, tying the teams of Bud Ward/Harvie Ward, Walter Burkemo/Lefty O’Doul and Doug Ford/Monty Moncrief. Right behind them was the team of Johnny Palmer/Ken Venturi with 199, carried mostly by Venturi. Palmer did not make the professional cut. Don Cherry and Tommy Bolt finished at 203.

The 1954 Crosby was really a tournament within a tournament. Only professionals were eligible for the individual event. The pro-am was a different story, using a better-ball format with handicap. Each amateur received his full handicap plus one stroke. For some reason, those who played off scratch — Littler, Ward, Venturi and Cherry — were allotted handicaps of 2.

Of their individual gross scores, which didn’t count in the tournament, Harvie Ward shot 208, two strokes better than the winner, Dutch Harrison; Venturi tied Harrison at 210; and Littler shot 211. The amateurs were the stars of 1954 but basically unheralded.

The biggest winners were the Monterey charities, which received more than $50,000 from the tournament, of which $10,000 came from ads in the program, a record for the Clambake.

Poor weather again affected play, seemingly an annual occurrence with the rainy winter season in California. Crosby offered to put up $15,000 in prize money if the PGA of America – this was before the touring pros split into what would become today’s PGA Tour – would move the Crosby to a summer date, to no avail. The date eventually was moved from mid-January to early February.

Current prize money dwarfs that of the early days. This week, the professionals will be playing for $7.6 million, but the format will be timeless: plenty of parties, lots of fun and some serious golf.

Just don’t expect to see as many competitive amateurs.

John Fischer, a retired attorney in Cincinnati, is a golf historian who is a past president of the Golf Collectors Society and a longtime member of the USGA’s Museum and Library Committee. Email: jfischeriii@icloud.com