Before the Hope

In the 1950s, celebrities and pro golfers served up the razzle-dazzle at the Thunderbird Invitational, which grew into today’s five-course ‘Classic’

Judd Spicer Golf

Before the Bob Hope Classic became one of the most venerable and popular of annual PGA Tour events, Hollywood stars flocked to the Coachella Valley’s first 18-hole golf course — Thunderbird Country Club in Rancho Mirage — for the Thunderbird Invitational, first held in 1952.

“Right away, both the club and the tournament attracted Hollywood celebrities,” says Robert Windeler, a veteran entertainment writer who wrote The Quotable Golfer and biographies of Mary Pickford, Julie Andrews, and Burt Lancaster, among others. “[Entertainers] were working all the time; they were under contract mostly. And they were not allowed to go more than 100 miles away on the weekend. They came here so they could get away for the weekend and not violate their studio contracts and get back in time to go to work Monday morning.

 “From the outset, Thunderbird had Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Jack Benny, Gordon MacRae, Hoagy Carmichael, Phil Harris, and Desi Arnaz as members,” Windeler says. “It had a huge celebrity component. This huge celebrity quotient gave the club a lot of visibility.”

As detailed in Windeler’s 2002 From Desert to Oasis – Thunderbird Country Club 50th Anniversary History, Thunderbird’s most visible contribution to living history derives from the club’s marriage of golf and popular culture. The electric golf cart was born here, as was the Perry Como sweater. Ford’s Thunderbird model took its name from the club. President Eisenhower was a member. And the grounds served as the first in the country to have houses built on a golf course.

“These were not only well-known people who were on television and in the movies all the time — they played golf like demons,” Windeler says. “Eisenhower didn’t come to Thunderbird until 1954, but that was a big shot in the arm. He was still president. He attracted a lot of attention for a little club in the middle of the desert. Then Thunderbird was asked to host the Ryder Cup in 1955, which was unheard of for a course that was only four years old.”

Initially referred to as the Thunderbird Pro-Member Open, the Thunderbird Invitational became the Palm Springs Desert Golf Classic in 1960 as an official PGA Tour event (with the current multi-course format) and shortened its name to Palm Springs Golf Classic, then Desert Classic and finally, in 1965, Bob Hope Desert Classic. Thunderbird was part of the course rotation until 1963.

“More and more people were moving into the area between Palm Springs and Indio and getting older, so they needed a hospital desperately,” says Windeler, who is writing a Hope biography. “Hope said he couldn’t run the tournament, but he would definitely put his name on it. And he got Chrysler to sponsor it. The first year, it was called The Bob Hope Desert Classic and eventually became The Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. Hope gave 80 acres of land for Eisenhower [Medical Center] to be built.”

Akin to its modern-day format, the celebrity pro-am was a part of the tournament from the outset. Drawing a competitive field was easy.

“When Thunderbird decided to have the invitational in 1952, they managed to get all the top golfers of the day,” Windeler says, referring to the desert debuts of Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Jimmy Demaret, and Julius Boros.

The tournament has blossomed as a staple of the desert sporting and social calendar. When Bill Haas won last year’s Hope, he collected $900,000 from a $5 million purse. However, the initial years of the invitational were played before the sport’s boom a decade later. E.J. “Dutch” Harrison won the first Thunderbird title and collected $1,000 from a $5,000 purse.

In 1953, the invitational featured a field that included six past U.S. Open champions. However, Demaret, the 1940 Masters champ and runner-up in the Open six years prior, claimed the title. The win was the first of three invitational wins for Demaret; he won back-to-back titles in 1956 and 1957. The sophomore event saw the purse double to $10,000 (Demaret took home $1,500), as well as Hope’s debut, and the beginning of a pattern for runner-up Hogan (who struggled perennially with his putting on the Thunderbird greens).

In 1954, Fred Haas claimed the title — and established a surname to watch in future events. Although no relation to Fred, the father-son combo of Jay and Bill Haas were winners of the Hope in 1998 and 2010, respectively. The 1954 event also welcomed television coverage, a notable broadcast in that the American masses had yet to embrace golf.

“They tended to focus on the celebrities as much as the golfers,” Windeler says. Yet what the cameras likely failed to capture was the way in which the pros were starting to dominate the track.

“Players started to complain about the course at this point, saying it was a pushover,” Windeler says. “Of course, Ben Hogan didn’t say that. But that’s why they eventually moved away in ’62, because it was too easy a course.”

Shelley Mayfield, the third-place finisher in the 1954 PGA Championship, won the ’55 trophy. The cast of those keeping the celebrity scorecard was perhaps most notable. “The interesting thing about that year was not so much the players, but the entertainment committee, which was the most star-studded of any club in the country,” Windeler reports. “Phil Harris was the chairman. Desi Arnaz, Hoagy Carmichael, Dean Martin, Gordon MacRae, and Perry Como — that was it, no civilians.”

In 1958, a year after finishing second to Demaret, Ken Venturi claimed one of his four tourney wins for the season. His winning share may have been the same $1,500 that Demaret claimed in ’53; however, the victory offered fringe benefits. “He also got a new Ford Thunderbird. By now, the car had been named for the club,” Windeler says. “And he got 20 $1,000 bills in an envelope as his share of the Calcutta.”

In 1959, Thunderbird Country Club hosted the last tournament before it went to a five-day, multicourse format that also included the Tamarisk, Bermuda Dunes, and Indian Wells country clubs. Yet from a golf historical perspective, the final year at Thunderbird isn’t remembered more for evolving and advancing the march of “Arnie’s Army” than for the cessation of a tournament.

Arnold Palmer — later a winner of five more incarnations of the event and a participant in 41 of the next 42 tournaments — won the invitational in 1959 as hordes of onlookers followed, watching him flex his forearms while smoking a wealth of both cigarettes and existing records.

“They had almost 5,000 spectators, which doesn’t sound like much today, but it was 2,000 more than Thunderbird had at the Ryder Cup four years earlier, which was a huge crowd,” Windeler says. “And Palmer’s final round of 62 tied the course record.
The 72-hole 266 score was also a record.”

Regarding Palmer’s ratty-looking flat stick, Windeler was able to unearth this description from Palm Springs Life pages of yore: “They called it, ‘A shabby, improvised putter. But a secret weapon that was built for 10 birdies.’”

A year later, when the tournament became PGA’s Palm Springs Desert Golf Classic, Palmer firmly marked his desert turf en route to setting the golf world afire. Before being crowned “The King” by capturing both the U.S. Open and Masters in that same season, Palmer marched to an aggregate 338 (22 under par) in the nascent Classic, a tally that would stand as a tournament record for nearly 20 years. For the win, Palmer earned $12,000 of the tournament’s $70,000 total purse, which was high at the time, according to Windeler.

In 1961, the tournament dropped “Desert” from its moniker and Eldorado Country Club joined to make the rotation a five-course event. Billy Maxwell won in 1961 (the year the event began its lauded run of philanthropy) and Palmer won in ’62, before the tournament returned to a four-course rotation in 1963 and ’64. Thunderbird was removed from the rotation in ’63, and La Quinta Country Club replaced Tamarisk the next year. The final two tournaments saw an ascending Jack Nicklaus defeat Gary Player in an 18-hole playoff and Tommy Jacobs edging out Demaret in the event’s first sudden death playoff in ’64.

Aside from weather-induced renovations performed by luminary designer Ted Robinson decades later, Thunderbird re-mains much as it was when it began a desert tradition 60 years ago (it opened Jan. 9, 1951). And while the marquee has changed with time, the glow of stardust still blows over the tournament with the vibrancy of a new generation of celebrities who tee off with the professionals each January.