Industry News

Star search at Pebble Beach lacks pizzazz of yesteryear

By Gary Van Sickle

The first year that I covered the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am was 1990, the last year that legendary Cypress Point was part of the three-course rotation.

Of course, no one knew then that it would be the last call at Cypress. I went to the tournament for the express purpose of walking those hallowed holes for the first time. That’s how I happened to be at the 14th tee, the course’s outer edge along 17-Mile Drive and the Pacific, in one of the early rounds, when I saw two familiar faces teeing off: Burt Lancaster and Robert Wagner. 

I can’t swear by my memory, but I think Lancaster wore a tweed Hogan-style cap and a turtleneck under a jacket. It was a sunny but brisk day, and the wind had a little bite. The men teed off, then walked up the right side of the fairway together, with Lancaster’s arm around Wagner as he no doubt dispensed valuable wisdom, some old Hollywood gossip or simply whined about his play, as most golfers do. I was the only spectator walking along outside the ropes. 

What a spot, Cypress Point, and what a pairing.

The AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, which made its debut 80 years ago and returns to the Monterey Peninsula this week, isn’t what it used to be. Celebrity golf isn’t what it used to be, maybe because celebrities aren’t what they used to be. 

When it was the Bing Crosby Clambake, stars teed it up. Big, big stars. By 1990, we were almost out of big, big stars. Lancaster certainly was. (Although I always wished he’d been paired with pro golfer Jim Thorpe because one of Lancaster’s memorable roles was “Jim Thorpe All-American,” about the American Indian super-athlete. Wagner was a star, too, and was huge in several TV series.

Our stars now aren’t larger-than-life like Lancaster. They tweet. They make the circuit of talk shows and morning TV news shows, hawking their latest film in five- and seven-minute segments. We see them in evening news shows that are devoted solely to celebrity news, which only makes the stars seem less like celebrities.

The world has changed. So has the Pebble Beach Pro-Am. You could point to Crosby’s death in 1977 as the end of the Clambake as we knew it, but really, the last vestige of that special celebrity golf feeling ended when erstwhile hacker Jack Lemmon died in 2001. He never made the pro-am cut at Pebble Beach, not even in 1995, when his pro partner, Peter Jacobsen, won the tournament. Lemmon was a real larger-than-life star, like Lancaster and Clint Eastwood. He was among the last.

Comedy actor Bill Murray took the tournament’s mantel from Lemmon and carried it brilliantly. Even CBS Golf made it a point to show as little of him as possible for years while trying to shove Ray Romano and the unfunny Kevin James, both starring in CBS sitcoms then, down our throats. I once followed Murray for 54 holes to do a story, and he put on a daily six-hour improv show for the fans. Amazing.

The corporate executives far outnumber the celebrities in the pro-am these days. I don’t blame CBS for shamelessly hyping these execs; they know where their bread (pun intended) is buttered. But I don’t have the patience to watch rich guys in whom I have no vested interest chopping it up and seeing Phil Mickelson hit one shot every 12 minutes, then waiting for Peter Kostis to analyze some schlub like Huey Lewis and his god-awful swing on the Konica-Minolta Biz-Hub Slo-Motion Marlboro IBM Messerschmidt Action Cam.

I’m not saying bring back the good old days. I’m saying, it’s time to get rid of the celebrities on account of … we’re all out of Burt Lancasters.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal.