The Greatest Moments in Sports

With top-flight golf and tennis events, the eyes of worldwide television audiences have long been fixed on the desert. We tapped the memories of sports enthusiasts who have lived here long enough to have seen it all.

Arnold Palmer

Photography from Palm Springs Life Archives

The match on a bone-chilling December night at Mission Hills Country Club continued until almost 11 p.m., and more bodies huddled inside the heated press tent than in a cluster high in the stands.

The West Coast’s first Davis Cup final in 1978 still gives Tommy Tucker chuckles and chills of a different sort.

“It was put together in less than five weeks when England won the semifinals,” recalls the club’s tennis pro emeritus. “We had the stands already up from the Colgate Series Championships. We had the support of then Colgate CEO David Foster, club pro Dennis Ralston, and the tennis community.”

The thrill of landing the finals of a worldwide tennis event at the relatively new venue was seismic. The U.S. Davis Cup roster boasted John McEnroe and Brian Gottfried in singles and Stan Smith and Bob Lutz in doubles. Organizers expected high-quality play, but hosting the underdog U.K. crowd was a priceless experience on many fronts.

Barely 100 spectators — mostly fortified and wildly cheering Brits waving Union Jacks — braved the chill of the final match between Gottfried and England’s Buster Mottram.

When Mottram defeated Gottfried in five sets, the roar from the stands was fitting of the fair-weather fans. Most of the Fleet Street sportswriters, in spite of also being well fortified, covered the event in brief sprints to center court. When the match ended, the crowded and already noisy press tent erupted. Scribes from some of the Queen’s most prestigious newspapers stood on press tables, libation in one hand and phone in the other, as they screamed the good news to their press rooms over the pond.

It was a different era in tennis, when top professionals would support the Davis Cup for their country and colorful characters were quintessential to the image of sports media on every continent, Tucker recalls.

Charles Pasarell, co-founder of Indian Wells Tennis Garden, still holds the 1969 Wimbledon record for the longest match: a 112-game, five-hour-and-12-minute marathon that he lost to Pancho Gonzalez. His three top sports moments in the valley, not surprisingly, include two representing years of personal dogged diligence and are measured against world-class tennis achievements.

Nurturing the Pacific Life Open from its 1978 genesis as American Airlines Tennis Games and Congoleum Classic at Mission Hills Country Club through venues at La Quinta Hotel Tennis Club and Hyatt Grand Champions Resort, Pasarell — with his partner Ray Moore — risked everything to build the West Coast’s tennis granddaddy of them all: the 16,000-seat Indian Wells Tennis Garden, which opened in 2000.

It was almost 20 years from the time Pasarell began incubating major tennis with the angst of keeping sponsors, top-ranked players, and sanctioning organizations on board when he was able to take his events to an international level.

“It was 1997, when the men and women were combined, making our event at Hyatt Grand Champions only one of six events in the world,” Pasarell recalls. With Michael Chang reigning over the Newsweek Champions Cup and Lindsay Davenport taking the State Farm Evert Cup, Pasarell bridged a sports gender marketing gap with solid business sense.

He could have busted a racquet string last year when the combined events, presented as the Pacific Life Open since 2002, “broke the 300,000 attendance mark, making the event the first Grand Slam tennis event to achieve that,” Pasarell says. The tournament eclipses other desert sporting events by more than half. One match affected Pasarell and other tennis observers on a deeply visceral level.

Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi played the Monday night final, a match that took on the air and excitement of a heavyweight prize fight,” Pasarell recalls. Sampras defeated Agassi 7-5, 6-3, 7-5.

Tucker looks at Mission Hills’ tennis history in eras rather than singular events — and with gratitude for his timing. “When Dennis Ralston recruited me to Mission Hills in the 1970s, I had no idea I would experience the golden years of modern tennis and still be able to associate with earlier greats who were still with us at that time,” he says.

Besides the Davis Cup finals, Tucker was a key operative in the American Airlines and Congoleum Classic matches, the Colgate Series Championships, and the Colgate Women’s Masters. He also began his long relationship as director of corporate tennis events for Dinah Shore’s annual golf party.

“Those were the days when players were approachable,” Tucker says. “They didn’t have layers of managers, handlers, and publicists between them and officials, the media, and the fans. They weren’t so packaged. The fans loved their personalities; and for the players, it was more about love of the game than the money.”

Tucker says there will never be a lineup of great tennis personalities like there were in the 1970s and 1980s at Mission Hills. Rod Laver, who twice won the Grand Slam title, was a regular and totally unassuming, as were McEnroe, Gonzalez, Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King, Ilie Nastasi, Ivan Lendl, Jose Higueras, Roscoe Tanner, Ken Rosewall, and Virginia Wade.

During one Congoleum Classic, Tucker suggested a reunion of tennis greats from the golden era, which could be called the platinum era for the gutsy players who kept the sport viable on a shoestring and sheer devotion to the game. Long-retired pioneers, including Alice Marble and Harry Hopman, came from all over and dined as guests of Congoleum one magical night at Le Vallauris in Palm Springs.

Kraft Nabisco Championship’s Tournament Director Terry Wilcox and Landmark Land Co.’s Chairman Ernie Vossler grew up breathing golf, became touring and teaching professionals, and remain associated with the desert’s most prestigious events. Both measure great moments by the way they push golf and golfers beyond preconceived limits, entertain the public, and fire the imagination of fans everywhere.

A top moment for Wilcox is the Sunday that Dinah Shore gave her personal imprimatur to the victory splash that has been followed by her tournament champions for almost a decade.

Amy Alcott, who impulsively launched the wet tradition in 1983 with her first win, challenged the tournament hostess to join her in the jump if she won a third crown in 1991. Advice came from every direction. Some worried that Shore, in her 70s, might be injured and warned her not to jump in the gooey lake. Others urged her on. Not even her staff knew what she would do when Alcott made her final victorious putt.

Annika Sorenstam, who is certainly one of the best women players in history, if not the best,” Wilcox says, thrilled him when she won her third championship in 2005. Earlier, the incredible Swede had won back to back in 2001 and 2002. She joined earlier triple winners Betsy King, Alcott, and Sandra Post at a time when an international field was making the feat even more problematic.

Youthful talent and poise have given Wilcox two more outstanding moments in sports: “Michelle Wie [at age 13] busting in on the national scene with a third round 66, the lowest round by an amateur in a major championship ever” and “Morgan Pressel at the age of 18 becoming the youngest winner of a major championship with her victory in 2007.”

Vossler is proud that three desert tournament highlights happened on golf courses built by Landmark, including “tournament winner Lee Trevino’s 1987 hole in one on the 17th hole of the PGA West Stadium Course during the Skins Game.”

A final round that may never be duplicated continues to be a stunner for Vossler and the record books: the 1999 final-round shot by David Duval at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic on the PGA West Palmer Course that won the tournament.

According to Vossler, the most thrilling Skins Game took place in 2001, “when Greg Norman won $1 million at Landmark Golf Club, shutting out three other contestants. That’s the only time one player has won all the money in a Skins Game.”

After failing to make the winner’s circle for three years, the unpredictable Norman had pocketed the whole enchilada, shutting out Tiger Woods, Colin Montgomerie, and Jesper Parnevik.

The Bob Hope Chrysler Classic is memorable for its celebrity antics, most notably by the funny “Ski Nose” himself. Starting in the 1960s, when Arnold Palmer and his loyal army of fans marched to victory for the first of five times, the Hall of Fame charmer began earning Hope’s eternal “thanks for the memories” and that of Classic Director Ernie Dunlevie, who has been associated with the tournament from its earliest days.

Like Tucker, Dunlevie sees a big change in the approachability of players and the laidback fun of the event. He recalled the distinction in a 2006 interview: “In those days, the purses were modest and the pros were struggling to make a living. Golf wasn’t about money as much as love of the game. Pros were more relaxed and pro-ams were really fun.”

Dunlevie says it would be hard to imagine two of today’s business-like pros dancing together at the Hope’s traditional jam session as Palmer and Jack Nicklaus did one afternoon in the early years.

“Arnie bumped into a guest and knocked off her blonde wig,” he recalls. “He shoved it on Jack’s head, and the two of them waltzed all over the room. It was hilarious. The guests loved it.”

Corporations such as Kraft Foods, Chrysler Corp., and the Pacific Life Open appreciate the marketing connection between golf and tennis and the demographics of Coachella Valley residents and visitors. Country clubs such as Mission Hills, the official Bob Hope Chrysler Classic courses, and Indian Wells Tennis Garden rank among the local venues that leverage the global brands and enjoy international exposure given to the desert.

Some athletes — especially equestrians and polo players — and professional sports teams need little enticement to exploit the desert as a place to live, play, and retire. About 30 retired National Football League players now live in the Coachella Valley — including Jim Hardy, Chuck Knox, Glenn Davis, George Blanda, Mike McCormack, John Brodie of La Quinta; Tom Flores and Sam Boghosian of Indian Wells; and Johnny Lujack, Norb Hecker, John Elway, Troy Aikman, Jim Plunkett, and Jim Mora.

Polo historically is the granddaddy of all participatory sports. Palm Springs widow Harriet Cody launched sports tourism when she built the first commercial stable at South Palm Canyon Drive and Ramon Road in 1919. Riding was so popular by 1937 that a group of equestrians formed the Field Club at Ramon Road and Sunrise Way. Polo had become the darling of the Hollywood set, which escaped tyrannical gossip columnists such as Luella Parsons by enjoying their private lives in Palm Springs and La Quinta, where Eldorado Polo Club was founded at about the same time. Eldorado has 14 fields, numerous exercise and practice areas, and room to stable 1,000 horses. Season highlights are the Barbara Sinatra Children’s Center Polo Classic and the Governor’s Cup.

Celebrities attracted international players and plenty of royalty over the years. Prince Philip, Prince Charles, Maj. Ronald Ferguson, and Mexico’s spectacular Gracidas brothers all have graced the fields. Today, polo remains a popular desert pastime — although, unlike tennis or golf, watching it has no populist application. The sport, at least in the desert, serves a participatory lifestyle rather than a spectator experience.

Two popular sports teams — Major League Baseball’s California Angels and National Basketball Association’s Los Angeles Lakers — once sprouted like verbena at desert training camps for many springs.

Late Angels owner Gene Autry brought his team to Palm Springs for spring training for three decades — 1961 to 1992 — during the desert’s golden era of baseball, and fans returned like swallows to Capistrano to watch their beloved team.

The city built for the team Angels Stadium at Sunrise Park, where retirees with recre-ational vehicles would line up at dawn on spring mornings to find a parking space. Meanwhile, Autry’s nearby hotel was the popular base and watering hole for major sports media who followed such eventual Hall of Fame inductees as Jim Fregosi, Rod Carew, Reggie Jackson, and Nolan Ryan.

By the late 1990s, then Mayor Sonny Bono and the Palm Springs City Council were focused on launching a new international film festival. Agreeing to refurbish the aging 5,100-seat Angel Stadium, with its obsolete locker rooms, was not a priority. The team soon found greener spring grass in Tempe, Ariz., where the Angels train to this day.

There have since been a few minor league teams. Today, Palm Springs Power provides semi-pro action for collegiate players outside the farm team system.

Memories of Shaquille O’Neil dwarfing the basketball gym and rookie Magic Johnson sharing his office with Jerry West continue to delight College of the Desert’s unofficial sports historian John Marman. It’s natural for COD to refer any questions to Marman, the school’s athletic director from 1969 to 2002. He retains his affiliation with COD as an elected member of the board of trustees.

Like the locals who loved Angel baseball, Marman says the community took the Los Angeles Lakers to heart. Student athletes learned moves and class from their pro role models, he says.

The Lakers spent 12 spring trainings at COD during the 1980s and into the ’90s.

“We had enough room for 2,500 fans to come in for a practice game,” Marman says. “We crammed them in, even putting them on the stage. We charged $10 a person and always had an overflow. As soon as one or two people would leave, the student monitors would let two more in at no charge.”

At first, Marman says, everything was very low key; but it was an era of basketball superstars, and the public soon started waiting in the parking lot to clamor for autographs.

“We finally had to have the buses pull right up to the buildings so the players could run inside,” he says. “We never had a problem with the Lakers behaving badly. They were professionals who were serious and worked hard. It was the fans who were a problem. We often had to pull them from the rafters and practically bar the gym doors.”

Jerry Buss, the team owner, had his choice of personal hotel rooms. He owned the Ocotillo Lodge in Palm Springs and came up with the convenient idea of September and October training at COD before every season.

“Shaq, who was a night owl by nature, wanted to practice on his own time. So I gave him the key to the gym, and he could come whenever he wanted. For this professional, it was the key to heaven,” Marman says.

The players were approachable and remembered the names of students and faculty, even their spouses and partners. They gave autographed practice jerseys and shoes to young COD athletes.

“Charities started asking us for autographed equipment and uniforms to raffle at their big annual events, and the Lakers always cooperated,” Marman says.

These giants of the court endeared themselves to the community in many ways. “One year, they replaced every one of our eight wooden baskets with glass backboards. That had to cost $15,000 to $20,000, and we are using them to this day.”

Marman, like Mission Hills tennis icon Tommy Tucker, is grateful that he was part of the desert scene at a time when professional sports figures were personable, approachable, and boasted individual, distinctive personalities.

“The golfers were the same way, which is why we loved to go to the Hope Classic,” Marman says. “There will never be two more fun and approachable people than Arnie [Palmer] and Bob Hope.”

He agrees with Tucker that attorneys, agents, publicists, and other “middlemen” have come between professional sports figures and fans.

“I am so lucky to have known these great players in those days,” Marman says. “Of course, the fans are different too, which is part of today’s problem. A fan used to ask for an autograph for himself or his family, and the players believed him. Today, too many fans want a stack of autographs to sell on eBay, and the pros know it.”

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