You’d think after playing in the PGA Tour’s Bob Hope Chrysler Classic 42 of the 49 times it has been contested (and winning it five times), Arnold Palmer would be content in his role as host of the 50th anniversary tournament, Jan. 19-25. But you don’t win as many tournaments as Palmer has without feeling the competitive fires now and again, even at age 79.
“I’m flattered to be invited to be the host,” he says. “Certainly, I have always thought a great deal of the tournament and enjoyed playing in it through the years. I suppose the only thing that is upsetting about the whole deal now is that I am not still playing. But I guess time takes care of everything.”
Indeed, time flies when you’re having fun; and the Classic has delivered plenty of that over the last half-century. The tournament was first played in 1949 as the Palm Springs Golf Classic, with Palmer winning in dominating fashion.
With Palmer’s star power and a hole-in-one prize of $50,000 for the first three years of the tournament, attention came easily. In fact, the tournament was televised in its second year, showcasing the Coachella Valley to viewers across the country. And while the tournament has played an enormous role in placing the valley on the map as a golf destination, it also has delivered plenty of celebrity sightings and historic golf moments.
A steady stream of Hollywood celebrities played in the tournament’s early years. Bing Crosby, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Phil Harris, and Desi Arnaz were all regulars. Dwight Eisenhower, who would become a close friend of Palmer’s in the decades ahead, was the first president to tee it up at the Classic. In 1965, Bob Hope added his name to the tournament and became chairman of the board.
“The tournament became a fixture in the desert because of the players from the PGA Tour coming and participating and because it was endorsed by the celebrities — Bob Hope and his friends from the film industry — through the years,” Palmer says.
Hoping to give the tournament a boost, founders Milt Hicks and Ernie Dunlevie met Hope at O’Donnell Golf Club in 1964 to see if he would be interested in attaching his name to the event. Because Crosby already had his name on a tournament at Pebble Beach, the idea resonated with Hope. He didn’t commit, however, until three weeks later when the three of them happened to be on the same airline flight. It didn’t hurt that the board decided to build a hospital in Rancho Mirage, which began the Hope family’s lengthy support of what is now Eisenhower Medical Center. Having Hope onboard raised the allure of the tournament, increasing television rights and the tournament purse.
The 1970s saw more stars from entertainment, sports, and politics make their way to the desert’s lush, green fairways. Frank Sinatra first played in the Classic in 1972. He was joined in that decade by Jack Benny, Sammy Davis Jr., and Dean Martin. Professional athletes like Willie Mays, Joe Louis, and Johnny Bench also took part. One PGA Tour star in particular stamped his mark on desert golf in the 1970s: Johnny Miller, the 1973 U.S. Open winner at Oakmont, raised his game to another level in the desert and became the first back-to-back winner in the history of the Classic when he won by three strokes in 1975 and by one shot in 1976.
Today, the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic is a five-day tournament played on four courses by 128 PGA Tour professionals. In addition, 384 amateurs get a chance to tee it up with the pros; and 30 celebrities bring Hollywood star power to the equation.
“I think [what distinguishes the tournament from other PGA events] is the fact that the pros participate with the amateurs through most of the tournament,” Palmer says. In 2008, fans got to see Woody Austin — famous for his accidental swim during the 2007 Presidents Cup — paired with rockers Alice Cooper and Meat Loaf. Also in 2008, Mike Weir, who in 2003 won both the Classic and the Masters, played with surf legend Kelly Slater. In 1995, Hope teed off with defending champion Scott Hoch and Presidents Gerald Ford, George Bush, and Bill Clinton, the latter being the first sitting president to play.
With celebrities and professional athletes from other sports honing their golf games in preparation for the Classic, the battle for the amateur title has been spirited over the years. Past amateur/celebrity winners include Lawrence Welk, Robert Goulet, Carson Daly, Roger Clemens, Andy Williams, and Mike Eruzione. In 2008, comedian and tournament host George Lopez teamed up with fellow actors Samuel L. Jackson and Luke Wilson to win the four-day amateur title. By fall 2008, actor/comedian Kevin Nealon, former Vice President Dan Quayle, broadcaster Keith Jackson, former Yankee Yogi Berra, and singers Huey Lewis and Michael Bolton were committed to this year’s tournament.
Although the presence of PGA Tour pros attracts golf fans, the chance to see Hollywood celebrities during the Classic draws even nongolfing tourists. “People may see some of their favorite stars when they visit, and that’s exciting. I know it is for me,” says Jeff Beckelman, CEO of the Palm Springs Desert Resorts Convention and Visitors Authority. “I live on one of the courses where they play the tournament. You can see guys like Justin Timberlake and Matthew McConaughey. I think it’s an added draw to get visitors to come [to the desert].”
D.J. Trahan won the 2008 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic by coming from four shots back at the start of the final round to beat Justin Leonard by three strokes. Among the regular competitors is Southern California native Phil Mickelson, the champion in 2002 and 2004. Look for a local favorite to challenge for the victory in his own back yard
this year. Anthony Kim, who played golf at La Quinta High School, took the PGA Tour by storm in 2008. A Ryder Cup hero for the winning U.S. side at Valhalla in September, the 23-year-old Kim won twice on the PGA Tour last season. Since he tied for third at the 2008 Classic, his star power has increased significantly, and he is widely regarded as the best young player on the Tour.
Despite not being in the field these days, Palmer will play a major role in the golf that is played. Two Palmer-designed courses will be used in this year’s tournament: the Palmer Private Course at PGA West and La Quinta’s SilverRock Resort. The other courses in the rotation are Bermuda Dunes, which was used in the original tournament in 1960, and the Nicklaus Private Course at PGA West. “There’s nothing old hat about it,” Palmer says. “It’s a thrill to have my golf courses as tournament sites for the Classic, and certainly the things that have happened there and the benefits that have been derived from the tournament are wonderful. The golf is of such high quality and standards that it gives me a great thrill to be a part of it.”
Making an Impact
All that comes with a professional golf tournament — parties, celebrities, and PGA Tour pros —have helped make the Coachella Valley the golf Mecca and tourist destination it is today. “You have to credit the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic and probably the Skins Game and the LPGA’s Kraft Nabisco Championship: three major golf events in this area that are televised. They have raised the awareness of the area,” Beckelman says.
“The Bob Hope Chrysler Classic has estimated an annual economic impact of $62 million composed of hotel, shopping, and dining,” he adds. “They say that nearly 60 percent of the spectators are visitors, and they believe the visitors spend $330 per day, mostly on lodging and meals. A lot of the people that come indicate they will come back for a vacation. And they estimate between 76,000 and 95,000 spectators attend the tournament over the course of the week.”
As important as the tournament is to area businesses, it is even more vital to local charities. Since its inception in 1960, the Classic has donated $45.5 million to nonprofits throughout the valley. “It has been one of the very positive notes for the charities in the desert and provided benefits to those charities for so many years,” says Palmer, who for decades has been a loyal contributor to local causes.
The Classic Girls
The idea of having three young women play the part of the Classic Girls began early on when the tournament had a Classic Queen, the brainchild of Public Relations Director Cliff Brown. Several women who became household names held the title, including Lynda Carter, Debbie Reynolds, Barbara Eden, Jill St. John, and Jane Powell. Those Queens presided over a court of women that wore outfits emblazoned with “Bob,” “Hope,” and “Classic.” In 1975, the format changed and there was no longer a Classic Queen. Instead, the Classic Girls became ambassadors for the tournament, posing for pictures, presenting checks to charities, and attending events during tournament week. Since Chrysler became the sponsor in 1986, they are designated “Hope,” Chrysler,” and Classic.”
In 1990, Kate Spates was a 23-year-old looking for new opportunities when her boss “egged her on” to try out to be a Classic Girl. Along with Danielle Marman and Paulette Dean, she served as a Classic Girl in 1991 and 1992. “We were walking billboards,” she says. “We kept talking up the tournament, and they kept sending us around to do more and more. Being a Classic Girl absolutely gave me the confidence to think I could do whatever I wanted in life. I got more serious about myself and became more confident.”
Today, Spates owns Image Marketing Concepts in Palm Desert. One her first big projects was to build the Web site for the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, which the company has maintained since 1999. Now, her Classic Girl connection has come full circle: She will serve as a judge for the 2009 competition. “It’s a super honor,” she says. “Being a Classic Girl was — and is — about staying connected to something that is bigger than you are.”
BOB HOPE CHRYSLER CLASSIC
Dates: Jan. 19-25
Venues: The Palmer Private Course at PGA West will be the host course. Other courses in this year’s rotation are Bermuda Dunes Country Club, an original course in the first tournament in 1960 (its 50th anniversary coincides with the Classic’s); La Quinta’s SilverRock Resort; and the Nicklaus Private Course at PGA West, in the rotation for the first time.
The Classic Girls: Heather Hastings-Gorski, 26, Indio; Ashley DeWitt, 22, La Quinta; and Jamie Lynn Strzelczyk, 26, Indio
Beneficiaries: The Classic distributes net proceeds to Eisenhower Medical Center and 40 charities in the Coachella Valley each year. It has distributed more than $45 million since 1960.
Television: Final round (Jan. 25) on The Golf Channel, 1-4 p.m.
Information: 888-672-4673, www.bhcc.com