Stars on the Links

Sheila Grattan Golf

When his golf ball sailed through the VIP tent opening and landed on a table where guests were eating lunch, Bill Murray instantly assumed his Caddyshack persona Carl Spackler. Marching into the tent, he cleared the food away, took his stance on a chair, and smacked the ball back onto the green, where someone yelled, “It’s in the hole! It’s in the hole!”

This is one of Pat Bennett’s favorite celebrity anecdotes from the Bob Hope Classic golf tournament (now Humana Challenge). Bennett has been collecting stories as the tournament’s go-to person for media information, photos, and history for more than 27 years.

Stories about celebrity golfers and their unscripted and sometimes goofy behavior on the links are what desert tournament-goers remember long after they have forgotten who won the event. Actor and avid golfer Samuel L. Jackson may have explained best why fans have a special connection to celebrity duffers when he told Golf Digest, “When you step outside your field, it’s a different atmosphere; you become human.”

What could be more human than Dirty Harry sauntering down the fairways with daughter Morgan’s white cockatoo perched on his shoulder. Clint Eastwood loved that bird and had driven from Monterey to Indian Wells with the content creature secure on his shoulder.

Mixing professional golfers, celebrities, and desert sunshine with loud pants is pure alchemy for the greater Palm Springs area. If Midas himself controlled all the desert’s marketing dollars, he couldn’t come close to affording the priceless network images of Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Arnold Palmer, Dinah Shore, Frank Sinatra, and other celebrities signing autographs and cavorting in the dead of winter in shorts and cotton shirts. Millions of golf fans enviously tune in the televised coverage of the tournament while wondering if the snowplow will clear their streets before they must head to work on Monday.

Desert businesses have recognized that it’s time to ride the wave of tourism when visitors come to town for the Bob Hope Classic, Kraft Nabisco Championship (formerly Dinah Shore), and Frank Sinatra Starkey Hearing Foundation Celebrity Invitational. The former two involve sanctioned play by PGA and LPGA players, respectively, while the Sinatra tournament is strictly party time — and great fun for the gallery. Developers, who have long used outdoor boards at the tournaments to sell real estate, make sure when the events roll around that they have their board buys and beauty-shot ads in place. Popular restaurants and boutiques welcome back big-spending customers with specials and banners.

Joe Garagiola, former Major League catcher and witty commentator on NBC’s Today Show, was a popular pro-am guest when Nabisco took over the Colgate Dinah Shore tournament and goody bags rivaled the lavish gifts given to Oscar presenters. After experiencing a week of escalating gifts and entertainment, Garagiola was in a tournament van loaded with other guests heading for Palm Springs International Airport to return home. He splintered the silence and broke up the van when he suggested it was time for everyone to look under their seat for the red dot.

Celebrity golf is far from a “gimme” these days. The national culture is changing, and some close to celebrity golf worry about its future with the demise of A-list stars whose first names prompt instant recognition, the aging of boomers, and the rise of millennials. Other tournament party poopers are the economy and the retreat of corporations sensitive to how galas and lavish hospitality tents portray them to their customers, Washington politicos, and regulators.

Kraft Nabisco officials recognized several years ago that it was a new politically correct day in golf sponsorship. After 9/11, corporate customers were reluctant to fly out for their annual reunion at Mission Hills. Decades of a golden customer chain were broken that year and never reconnected in the same way. 

It wasn’t long afterward when wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the economy put a kibosh on high-profile spending and the Kraft Nabisco Championship (like the Hope has always done) began filling its pro-am with paying customers instead of guests, while the corporation established a new mission to eliminate global hunger. Three years ago, the tournament took another altruistic turn by letting charities sell tickets and keep 100 percent of the proceeds. A local financial firm, Integrated Wealth Management, teamed up with the charity push to offer a bonus pool based on how much revenue each charity raised. More than $150,000 was raised in 2010 and $175,000 in 2011.   

The Classic tournament, seeking a fresh location and younger crowd after the loss of its former namesake host, shot into the rough with celebrity comedian George Lopez as its new standard bearer and a new tournament venue north of Interstate 10, where the wind was so strong that fragile senior volunteers clasped flagpoles for dear life during one scary Sunday final round. The Classic base was too conservative for the hardworking Lopez, whose humor was more blue-collar Chicano than chic. Tournament officials soon made necessary course corrections, separating from Lopez and returning to their traditional courses to the south.

Golfers tend to be conservative, and change has triggered sponsor terror at more than one desert event. Wendy Morton was hired 28 years ago for the Kraft Nabisco tournament as a young computer whiz who could keep guest files confidential and celebrity clothing sizes straight. Today, as guest relations manager, she is the tournament’s senior staffer. But she recalls how she almost got fired a dozen years ago.

In high school, Morton was a huge Alice Cooper fan. A golfer contacted her on the job, telling her Cooper was a great guy and solid golfer. He asked her how to get a pro-am invitation for him. The super fan blurted out an invitation without going through normal channels and had to explain herself when Nabisco corporate brass were in town reviewing the guest list. When the subject turned to “Alice,” one exec yelled, “Who the hell is she?” The generation gap didn’t affect golf fans, however. Cooper drew the largest pro-am crowd that year and has been invited back every year since.

This year, the Classic took a new direction involving a healthcare sponsorship; a mission to promote worldwide health; and former President Bill Clinton, who has some history with the event. In 1985, Clinton gave the tournament its biggest celebrity coverage when he was the first sitting president to play in the Hope — teamed up with host Bob Hope and two former presidents: George Bush and Gerald Ford.

Early in 2011, the PGA Tour, Hope Classic, Humana, and William J. Clinton Foundation announced an eight-year partnership to produce the tournament starting in 2012. Just before the Fourth of July weekend, Humana and PGA officials, as well as Linda Hope as family spokesperson, announced the golf tournament would henceforth be called the Humana Challenge and that Bob Hope’s name would be attached to a new USO Club at the site and the trophy and peripheral events.

Kraft Nabisco has reached out to the Screen Actors Guild to field famous faces new to the desert and arranged for Ray Romano’s celebrity debut in this year’s event. The Sinatra invitational continues to host Ol’ Blue Eyes’ desert and showbiz pals, who by now are one big family. Loyal as ever to Sinatra’s memory and surviving wife Barbara’s causes, they include Tom Dreesen, Vince Ferragamo, Joe Mantegna, Ed Marinaro, Frankie Randall, Jerry Vale, and Robert Wagner. Marinaro, former Minnesota Vikings running back and avid 7.5 handicap golfer who portrayed Officer Joe Coffey on Hill Street Blues, was in the winning foursome of the first Sinatra tournament in 1988, when the wind was so fierce at Canyon Country Club that the players had to abandon the clubhouse after officials feared plate-glass windows were about to blow. Marinaro also has been a pro-am player many times in the Hope and Dinah Shore tournaments. 

“The Sinatra brings in new celebrities, but the nucleus stays the same,” he says. “I go to a number of non-pro celebrity tournaments every year, because it’s fun to see the people and the crowds have so much fun. At the Sinatra, everyone is relaxed and loose. We just don’t sign autographs on programs and hats. We sign them on body parts.”

Racking up more miles than all of Hope’s “road movies” combined, celebrity golf began to bud in 1937 at Bing Crosby’s little Rancho Santa Fe tourney. By the time World War II was over, Crosby and Hope had homes in Palm Springs’ Movie Colony and readily agreed to play in the Palm Springs Golf Classic, a local charity tournament founded in 1960.

Arnold Palmer began his greatest career year by winning the first Classic. The event was a huge success. Hope took the fundraiser big time in 1965, and the event was renamed the Bob Hope Desert Classic. The team of Hope and Palmer was magical. Palmer went on to win two more Hope Classics in 1962 and 1968 and was runner-up in 1965 and 1968.  

“In those days, the purses were modest, and the pros were struggling to make a living,” explains Ernie Dunlevie, a Hope Classic director since 1965. “Golf wasn’t about money as much as love of the game. Pros were more relaxed, and pro-ams were really fun.” Dunlevie doubts today’s pros would get silly enough to compete with one of his funniest pro-am memories:

“It was after a round during one of the early years and all of the guests were relaxing in the clubhouse at one of our famous jam sessions,” he recalls. “Arnie bumped into a woman and knocked off her blonde wig. Instead of giving it back to the woman, Arnie stuck it on Jack’s [Nicklaus] head, and the two of them waltzed all over the room. It was hilarious.”

Celebrity golf today has its own website with the Hope, Kraft Nabisco, and Sinatra tournaments listed in the top three spots. But the protocols were etched in the desert’s sand decades ago. By the time Colgate teamed up with Dinah Shore to bring LPGA golf to the desert in 1972, there was a celebrity golf circuit emerging from Bob Hope Classic regulars: Dean Martin, Gordon McRae, Perry Como, Jack Lemmon, Andy Williams, Jackie Gleason, and Phil Harris. Like Hope, Shore was popular with the entertainment crowd and drew upon her own glittering satellite to fill pro-am slots. She also shared many of the same famous friends as Hope and could always count on President Ford, Lemmon, Wagner, Robert Stack, Dina Merrill, Toni Tennille, Dennis James, Joe DiMaggio, and Don Meredith. The tournament hostess had socialized in the desert with Frank and Barbara Sinatra and Dolores Hope when she played tennis and fooled around with golf. She and Barbara wore bikinis to hit golf balls at Tamarisk Country Club during the summer and cooled off in the pools of homeowners who were gone until fall. 

Celebrity golf rules evolved through experiences shared by tournament hosts. The players who snub other guests, treat fans badly, insult anyone, overindulge, are too demanding, or otherwise make fools of themselves do not get invited back. The ones who are funny, kind, and down to earth wind up on the pro-am A-list and are given a thumbs-up when other charity events inquire.

Lemmon was a favorite of the celebrity golf world. During one of Shore’s pro-ams, he was bent over lining up his putt on the first tee when he slipped and broke his middle finger. As painful as it was, he didn’t want to disappoint his foursome. He saw Mission Hills homeowners watching from a patio and hot-cleated it over to borrow vodka. Fortified with a very large glass, Lemmon nursed the painkiller through 18 holes. After being whisked to an emergency room, he showed up as promised that night to entertain hundreds of guests at the post-game dinner with his splinted finger swathed in gauze and tape.

Shore herself showed her ego was secure and she could laugh at herself when, according to longtime tournament parking chairman John Stiles, she left Mission Hills on one of her tournament days and a ticket volunteer wouldn’t let her back in without a ticket or badge. She had to pay $10 to get into her own tournament. When Stiles and others apologized and tried to return her money, she would have none of it.  She was having too much fun dining out on the story. Giving back the sawbuck would have pulled her punch line.

Morton finds Tommy Smothers performing yo-yo tricks fun to remember. But what really touches her heart are the connections she’s made with bigger-than-life icons of sports and film.

“Joe DiMaggio was kind of shy,” she says. “We discovered we shared the same birthday. Joe liked that. Often he would come and sit in my office just to get away from the tournament crowds. He was one of the nicest men, and one of my most treasured possessions is a photo of us taken as we happened to enter one of the social events at the same time.

“Don Meredith had a home at Mission Hills. When I was under the most pressure before the tournament, Don would come by my office in his golf cart with his radio blasting rock music. He would come in with funny notes pinned to his shirt, just to make me laugh.  Sometimes, R.J. [Robert] Wagner would come with him.”

Mission Hills resident Bob De Palma talked to his wife, Roxanne, for years about his fantasy to play in the Hope Classic. About 13 years ago, she surprised him at Christmas with a slot in the pro-am. Ever since, he has played in Hope Classic and Kraft Nabisco pro-ams and gotten to know Alice Cooper, David Duvall, Arnold Palmer, and soap actress Kassie De Paiva.

“The pros play for real money in the Hope every day of the  pro-am, while the Kraft Nabisco format is quite different,” De Palma says. “The girls play in the pro-am to help the charities, but they’re not playing for money until Thursday when the tournament starts and the pro-am is over.”

Since the history of the Hope Classic disappeared from the tournament website the day it was announced that Hope’s name was being dropped from the title, younger fans may not realize what Hope and his band of celebrities and some of the greatest golfers of all time have brought to the desert.

Dinah Shore fares about the same. Her tournaments have done for much for Desert Regional Medical Center, Boys and Girls Club of Palm Springs, United Way of the Desert, and others, but many visitors today know only of the unaffiliated Dinah Shore Week events organized by lesbian party promoters.

The Sinatra tournament has supported the Barbara Sinatra Children’s Center and hearing causes for going on 25 years. So far, no one has had the nerve to mess with Frank’s name.