The Hollywood History of the Desert Classic Golf Tournament

As The American Express golf tournament takes over PGA West in La Quinta, we reflect on its origins and the pizzaz drummed up by past celebrity participants.

December 26, 2023
Story by Bill Dwyre
Bob Hope Desert Classic.
PHOTO VIA <em>PALM SPRINGS LIFE</em> ARCHIVES

It is impossible to write about the formative days of the professional golf tournament that takes place in the desert each January without mentioning “the good old days.”

John Foster, who was head of Desert Charities for years and a top tournament official from 1978 to 2020, remembers those tournament days as a “weeklong festival” playing to a “proud and involved community.”

To most longtime fans of the tournament, and especially those who have been around the desert for several decades, the January PGA Tour event will always be known as the Bob Hope Desert Classic. Or the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. Or simply “The Hope.”

Now, it is officially titled The American Express — a transition the tour said had to be made to ensure the continued existence of the tournament in the Palm Springs area. The tour took over, corporate America moved in — as it has in almost all facets of sports — and the local show, supported mostly by local money, needed to go the way of parades down main street and Girl Scout bake sales.

Coachella Valley habitué Bob Hope ignited the desert’s pro golf tournament in its early years with a major dose of star power.

PHOTO VIA PALM SPRINGS LIFE ARCHIVES

But, oh my, what a wonderful run it had, with its undying support from local country clubs and their members, and with a format that gave much of the money raised right back to the community that raised it.

“At one point, we raised $60 million,” Foster says. “That was more than the golf tournaments in L.A. and San Diego had raised together.”

In the late 1950s, when the likes of Arnold Palmer and other tops pros were just beginning their march toward stardom, Palm Springs was on the outside, looking in. As was, interestingly, Palmer.

The pro tour had an event in Brawley in January, and Palmer was en route when he decided to stop and see this place that had already held one Ryder Cup (at Thunderbird in Rancho Mirage in 1955) and was set to hold another in ’59 at Eldorado in Indian Wells. He liked what he saw — the manicured fairways and heavenly weather — and vowed to come back. He did, 42 times, and won a record five titles.

Hope and Arnold Palmer speak to a man with a mic at the 1967 Desert Classic.

PHOTO VIA PALM SPRINGS LIFE ARCHIVES

Fans map out a day of fun in the sun, circa 1967.
PHOTO COURTESY UNDERWOOD ARCHIVES VIA ALAMY

“Those were the days of great development in the desert and of builders and planners,” Foster says. “It was a time when people in the desert saw that Brawley had a tournament and said, ‘Why not us?’ ’’

Two stories accompany the next step. Once the Coachella Valley had its event, starting in 1960 and called the Palm Springs Golf Classic, the need for some pizzaz in the tournament image was identified, and legendary comedian Bob Hope, a fine golfer and frequent visitor to the desert courses, became the leader in the search-for-pizzaz derby.

One story has Hope being asked to dinner by former President Dwight Eisenhower. Ike had been playing golf at Thunderbird Country Club in Rancho Mirage with a friend, who had a heart attack on the course. The nearest hospitals were in Palm Springs and Indio, neither close enough for the friend to survive. Hope agreed to put his name on the pro golf event if proceeds would support the building of an Eisenhower Medical Center — and the Rancho Mirage hospital was born.

About the same time, developers Earnie Dunleavy and Milt Hicks traveled to Los Angeles to see Hope and ask him to put his name on the Palm Springs event.

According to Foster, Hope agreed, knowing that his friend and entertainment rival, Bing Crosby, also laid claim to an event, the Pebble Beach Clambake. But Hope had two conditions: First, he would go to no meetings; second, local folks needed to run the event.

Justin Timberlake (2006).

PHOTO VIA ALAMY

Somewhere along the way, the idea of having amateurs play with the pros was floated out and accepted. The amateurs would pay to play. The money raised would support area charities — mostly Eisenhower’s hospital — and the presence of amateurs would drive the local flavor of the event.

One problem: How could you do that? How could you insert several hundred amateurs into a fairly formulized pro event? To find an answer, they gave local pro Bob Rosburg a bungalow at Desert Dunes, where lots of paper and colored pencils waited. Eventually, Rosburg emergedwith a formula that was used for decades. (The tournament still uses a form of it now, though these days, fewer amateurs play.)

“Many of the same amateurs played for 20, 30 years,” Foster says, “and many became good friends of the playing pros. That was part of the celebration. These guys often lived on one of the courses they were playing, and when they got to the hole where they lived, they were greeted by big groups of partying neighbors and friends. It was a grand time, a festival.”

Soon, celebrities — Hope’s friends — further spiced the field. Recruiting them wasn’t hard. They came because of Hope: Bing Crosby, Clark Gable, Clint Eastwood, Sammy Davis Jr., Randolph Scott, Buddy Rogers, Desi Arnaz, Dean Martin, and many others. Recent years have drawn the likes of Justin Timberlake, Samuel L. Jackson, Jimmy Fallon, and Alice Cooper.

Jimmy Fallon (2008).
PHOTO VIA ALAMY

Samuel L. Jackson (2008).
PHOTO VIA ALAMY

That worked for years. But eventually, while many pros enjoyed the camaraderie of playing with amateurs and even parlayed those relationships into outside business deals, the grind became unpopular. Five rounds of golf and 12 different people to entertain/tolerate over the first four rounds brought enough complaints to PGA headquarters that the need for change became obvious, especially when top players started skipping the event.

By 2000, with Tim Finchem serving as PGA commissioner, the tour started moving the Coachella Valley event toward a bigger bottom line and a smaller dependency on amateurs to raise funds. What was once a $6,000 entry fee for amateurs ballooned to as much as $30,000, pricing out local golfers. Now, most of the playing amateurs are American Express invitees — company executives and people they want to do business with. Those original five rounds, with four by amateurs, have been reformatted. The emphasis today centers around being a PGA Tour event with a big payoff and stature for the winner and top finishers. Amateurs who can afford the buy-in still play during the first three days, tagging along with the same pro.

Foster doesn’t partake anymore. He is not angry. He understands the changes to the event probably saved it. He leaves town for the week, mostly because the course where he lives is shut down, so the tournament can be played there.

“I’m a little disappointed,” he says, referring to the event no longer being local, homespun, and self-sufficient. “That’s all.”

But he knows — and is proud of — how good the good old days were.