Palm Springs and Golf

True Story!

Golf tales from the desert, where Bing Crosby, a great singer, and Bob Hope, a great comedian, were also great golfers.

Bill Dwyre Golf

Palm Springs and Golf
George Barris designed the original Batmobile. His golf cart for Bob Hope included a rear mounted camera so the comedian could film his golf swing.
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF PALM SPRINGS LIFE ARCHIVES

Al Geiberger is 81. Time for him to play the O’Donnell golf course in downtown Palm Springs again, 58 years since he first played it. At O’Donnell, he will be returning to the place where he won prestigious amateur titles in 1958 and ’59. He wants to revisit some history.

So do we.

Palm Springs and golf are Hope and Crosby, in their road movies, and in fact. The city and the game blend, intermingle, play off each other. They are inseparable, a marriage of place and opportunity. The city has some of the best weather in the world and the game thrives on it. But early in the relationship, one would have been hard-pressed to foresee the riches and prestige that golf would bring to the Coachella Valley.

From its modest nine-hole roots, the valley became a two-time host to the vaunted Ryder Cup, a competition between the U.S. and Britain (and, today, all of Europe). The Cup is contested every two years and alternates between the two continents. Outside of the four major golf tournaments, there is nothing bigger in the sport. There have been 40 Ryder Cups since 1927. Only three have been played on the West Coast, and only five west of the Mississippi River.

Hosting a professional tournament is a big deal in any city. Today, the desert has two of them, long-running, high-profile events named for the Hollywood luminaries that spawned them — Bob Hope and Dinah Shore. The women’s event is one of only five majors on the LPGA tour. In May, organizers of the men’s event, now called the CareerBuilder Challenge, announced that Phil Mickelson, twice a winner of the tourney and a tour fan favorite, would become the face and spokesman of the event, and continue to play in what locals still call the Hope. Celebrity signature endures: Today, the women’s major, sponsored by All Nippon Airways, is called the ANA Inspiration … among sponsors. The rest of us still call it the Dinah.

New names and new sponsors belie the rich history of desert golf. Whether you’re a player or an observer, there’s always another story you haven’t heard.

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The late Arnold Palmer, aka The King of Kings, was a sometime resident of the Tradition Golf Club and was as popular in our valley as he was elsewhere in the world for his sportsmanship, generosity, and humility.

When a great amateur golfer named Johnny Dawson led the first group off the first tee at Thunderbird Country Club Jan. 9, 1951, the flag was up for golf in the Coachella Valley. The 65th anniversary of that moment passed rather quietly earlier this year. Thunderbird was the first 18-hole course in the valley, and Eldorado was soon to follow. They were the polished products of the rough draft that was The O’Donnell Golf Club.

In 1926, oilman Thomas O’Donnell owned just enough land to build a nine-hole course up against the mountains in what is now downtown Palm Springs. As legend has it, the design that remains today was determined by O’Donnell hitting a tee shot, walking to his ball, hitting a second shot, and locating the green where that shot landed.

As the film industry took off in Los Angeles, its glamorous workforce found the perpetual sunshine of the desert a prime place to take a break. In addition to tennis, its recreation of choice was golf. And like tennis, the golf country club establishment was not always welcoming. One potential member, Randolph Scott, addressed the unwritten no-actor policy succinctly: “If you’ve seen my movies, you know I’m no actor.”

Political leaders and corporate executives followed Hollywood onto the valley’s growing population of premier courses. After he left office, President Dwight Eisenhower carried on a celebrated public affair with Eldorado, where he played as many days a week as Mamie allowed. Eldorado eventually gave him a home (and a statue) on the 11th hole. His Secret Service minders played along, their guns discreetly tucked into their golf bags.

Like most golfers, Ike was an average player with an above-average desire to improve, playing thousands of rounds and lucky to have scored a hole-in-one. Once. It was in 1968 at Seven Lakes Country Club, which even today is a par-58 executive (that is, short) course. The hole was 104 yards. Like most golfers, Eisenhower had found his level. And like Ike, many presidents have found their levels playing valley courses.

Teeing Off

When a great amateur golfer named Johnny Dawson led the first group off the first tee at Thunderbird Country Club Jan. 9, 1951, the flag was up for golf in the Coachella Valley. The 65th anniversary of that moment passed rather quietly earlier this year. Thunderbird was the first 18-hole course in the valley, and Eldorado was soon to follow. They were the polished products of the rough draft that was The O’Donnell Golf Club.

In 1926, oilman Thomas O’Donnell owned just enough land to build a nine-hole course up against the mountains in what is now downtown Palm Springs. As legend has it, the design that remains today was determined by O’Donnell hitting a tee shot, walking to his ball, hitting a second shot, and locating the green where that shot landed.

As the film industry took off in Los Angeles, its glamorous workforce found the perpetual sunshine of the desert a prime place to take a break. In addition to tennis, its recreation of choice was golf. And like tennis, the golf country club establishment was not always welcoming. One potential member, Randolph Scott, addressed the unwritten no-actor policy succinctly: “If you’ve seen my movies, you know I’m no actor.”

Political leaders and corporate executives followed Hollywood onto the valley’s growing population of premier courses. After he left office, President Dwight Eisenhower carried on a celebrated public affair with Eldorado, where he played as many days a week as Mamie allowed. Eldorado eventually gave him a home (and a statue) on the 11th hole. His Secret Service minders played along, their guns discreetly tucked into their golf bags.

Like most golfers, Ike was an average player with an above-average desire to improve, playing thousands of rounds and lucky to have scored a hole-in-one. Once. It was in 1968 at Seven Lakes Country Club, which even today is a par-58 executive (that is, short) course. The hole was 104 yards. Like most golfers, Eisenhower had found his level. And like Ike, many presidents have found their levels playing valley courses.

A lot of high-level golf was being played in the early years. In 1952, U.S. Open and Masters champion Ben Hogan took the job as head pro at the newly opened Tamarisk Country Club, reportedly in part because the desert warmth was good for the legs he injured in a 1949 automobile accident that nearly killed him. Claude Harmon, the 1948 Masters champ, was named head pro at Thunderbird in 1959.

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Dinah Shore, who lent her name to one of the most popular sporting events in the desert, greets Vice President Spiro Agnew when he still had something to laugh about.

Ken Venturi, a celebrated member at Thunderbird around the same time, was tutored there by no less than Byron Nelson, who had found fault with Venturi’s swing. Apparently he fixed it: Venturi won the U.S. Open in 1964.

By the time of the Thunderbird Invitational in the mid-1950s, Eldorado and Thunderbird had become the jewels of desert golf. In November 1959, Sports Illustrated crowned Eldorado “The Taj Mahal of the Desert” as it was about to host the Ryder Cup four years after Thunderbird claimed that rare honor. Current Thunderbird pro Nick DeKock says, “You cannot replicate the history here.”

The Cup had traveled to the West Coast on the back and wallet of Oregon grocery executive Robert Hudson, who paid the British team’s way. In ’55, the U.S. won with Sam Snead as the star of the team.

Snead captained the U.S. at Eldorado, and again the U.S. won the Cup. The British team (it was not yet a European contingent) made it safely to the continent, but had a rough plane flight from Los Angeles to Palm Springs that left several members so ill they couldn’t practice for days.

“They let me play at Eldorado in ’59,” remembers Geiberger, who at the time was a college kid. “I’d never seen anything like it. You’d walk along, reach up and pick a grapefruit off a tree and eat it. I still remember the sweet taste.”
One member of a premier local club took more than fruit back to his snowbird home. Ernest Breech, chairman and CEO of Ford Motor Co., was so taken with his desert golf course that he asked permission to leverage its name. In 1955, the Ford Thunderbird was born.

The presence of golf’s reigning gods increased the desert’s attraction for people who were prominent enough to warrant its exclusive membership. For a while, often in the company of Bob Hope, Bing Crosby played golf at Thunderbird almost as well as he sang. He won club championships at both Eldorado and Thunderbird in 1958, but in 1951, he was beaten in a Canadian amateur tournament by Peter Bentley. Now 85, the Canadian lumber executive and longtime Thunderbird member was asked by Crosby after his victory if he had been nervous. Bentley responded, “If I’d been singing against you, I would have been.”

One of Ike’s friends was Hope. They played golf, and often dined together with their wives, Mamie and Dolores. Michael Landes, an Eldorado member and president of the Eisenhower Medical Center Foundation, tells the story of one such dinner in the 1950s. Eisenhower had played golf with a friend in what is now Rancho Mirage and was then a fairly remote recreational outpost. During the round, the friend had a heart attack and the emergency medical response from downtown Palm Springs was too late to save the man. Over dinner, Eisenhower, who succumbed to his fourth heart attack in 1969, expressed the need for closer medical facilities. Hope agreed, said he would donate land in Rancho Mirage for a hospital, and would put his name on a golf tournament to raise funds for it.

At the Turn

The Eisenhower Medical Center opened in 1971, by which time the Bob Hope Desert Classic golf tournament had been a pro tour event for six years. What had been the Thunderbird Invitational from 1954 to 1959 morphed into the Palm Springs Desert Classic until 1965, when it was officially branded The Hope, an association that endured until the musical chairs of sponsors started in 2011.

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He may have been a duffer, but no one looked more stylish on a course than Frank Sinatra.

John Foster is president of Desert Classic Charities, which hosts the event, and has been involved with it since 1987. “Bob Hope was amazing,” he says. “He kept that commitment to the event for more than 40 years. He was one of the busiest people in the world, but he was always there that week of the tournament.”

The tournament’s unique pro-celebrity format, now substantially revised, was created by local pro golfer Bob Rosburg. Getting celebrities to play golf in the desert sun in January always seemed easy — until Hope got old and eventually died, at age 100. “Suddenly, it got tough to get them to come,” Foster says. “It’s one thing me asking. Another if it’s Bob Hope.”
Like his frequent golf buddy Bing Crosby, Hope was a good player, and just like in the movies, he played to the tournament crowds.

Geiberger won the PGA title in 1966, so in the next year’s Hope Desert Classic, he was paired with its namesake.

“About the second hole,” Geiberger recalls, “he either made a long putt or chipped in. Can’t quite remember. The gallery goes crazy, cheering him on. He walks over to me and says, ‘I wake up to the applause meter every morning.’ ”

He was golf funny off the course as well. Robert Windeler was commissioned by Eldorado and Thunderbird to write histories of the clubs. In one, he recounts a golf awards dinner at Eldorado in the 1950s honoring member Edith Healy. During her remarks, Healy reminded the audience that she was also Thunderbird’s club champion.

“Congratulations, Edith,” Hope quipped from the audience. “That makes you the inter-course champion of the desert.”

According to Windeler, common sights at Thunderbird and Eldorado in the 1960s were Bob Hope driving Nelson Rockefeller around in a golf cart; Frank Sinatra munching on a hot dog; Arnold Palmer, sitting on a fence, talking to Eisenhower.
The dashing Palmer captured the hearts of sports fans everywhere he played. His tournament galleries were known as Arnie’s Army, and when it came to golf in the desert, he came, saw, he conquered.

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Bing Crosby with his son Lindsay. Few celebrities of the time were more serious about — or better at — the game.

Palmer won the Hope Classic five times. No one else has won more than twice. When he won the Desert Classic in 1960, before Hope’s name was attached, he received $12,000 for a 22-under par victory that was a tournament record for 20 years.
Palmer won again in ’62, ’68, ’71, and ’73, the last by two shots over Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller. It was one of his 62 tour victories, including seven majors. He played in 41 of the 42 Hope events, 1960 through 2002.

Palmer, who died at 87 in 2016, traveled among his homes in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Orlando, Florida, and La Quinta. Last summer, he told Palm Springs Life: “I have always enjoyed golf in the desert, and it certainly goes back a long way. I guess there is a good reason for that, considering the success I’ve had in tournaments over the years, even before the first Palm Springs Desert Classic in 1960.

The year before, I won the Thunderbird Classic and shot 62 in the final round to win it. That turned out to be the lowest score I ever shot on the tour.”

When Palmer won the Hope in 1973, he had gone 19 months without a win, and told the magazine, “… it crossed my mind that I might never win again.” He never did win again on the PGA Tour, although he found success on the PGA Tour Champions (senior) circuit.

Geiberger, who played on two Ryder Cup teams, remembers teammate Johnny Pott in 1963 telling player/captain Palmer how nervous he was. “Arnie tells Pott not to worry,” Geiberger says. “He told him he’d make sure Pott played with him. Pott said it was the worst thing that ever happened to him. There were people everywhere. Arnie never understood how big he was.”

Peter Murphy, a longtime Coachella Valley resident, businessman, and avid golfer who played with pro Dave Stockton Jr. in the Hope Classic in 1997, is part owner of The Nest restaurant in Indian Wells. He recalls a few years ago when Palmer arrived for dinner. “When he came in, the whole room erupted,” Murphy says. “He got done with dinner and went back into the bar to have a nightcap … people just engulfed him.”

Terry Beardsley, pro at Eldorado for the last 20 years, recalls the first time he played with Palmer. “We were at the Traditions course and I was very nervous. On the first tee, Arnold had his arm around me. By the second tee, he had his hand on my shoulder and was asking me how I felt.”

After the round, they had a drink. “I ordered iced tea,” he says.

Rookie mistake.

The 19th Hole

Perhaps the most fitting symbol of the importance and staying power of golf in the desert is the O’Donnell Golf Club, where Geiberger won consecutive amateur tournaments during an 11-tournament victory streak in the late ’50s. The course is across the street from the Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce, which, one surmises, might make a business booster seethe: The course is still nine holes, still private, and still there because O’Donnell made it so.

Larry Bohannan, veteran golf writer for The Desert Sun, tells the story in his book Palm Springs Golf.

By 1944, Bohannan writes, O’Donnell was in failing health and, while deeding his 33-acre golf course to the city of Palm Springs, also awarded its lease to 25 of his friends who would oversee the course and operations now performed by trustees of the O’Donnell Golf Club. The term is 99 years, and expires in 2043. So O’Donnell remains, a funky little course that long ago would have been bulldozed for construction of hotels, restaurants, homes, or mixed-use purposes that do not include golf.

In a cozy corner of the city of Palm Springs, where it has defined so much history, created so much color, and framed so much personality, golf won.

Unlike most other places, it’s par for the course.

The Perks of Presidency

President Obama is fond of playing at Sunnylands, and it’s rumored that he and the family are house-hunting at Thunderbird for a post-presidency getaway. In 1995, three-quarters of a foursome playing in the Bob Hope Desert Classic were presidents — Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Gerald Ford. It was the first time a sitting president, Clinton, played in a PGA tournament.

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Their pro companion, defending champion Scott Hoch, shot 70. Clinton carded a 93, Bush 92, and Ford 100 at the Indian Wells Country Club (the Hope tournament was, and is, staged at different valley courses). The round was filled with drama. Bush hit two spectators, one of whom required stitches on her nose, and Ford hit one. As the casualties mounted, Ford suggested that the gallery “stand behind them all the way around.”

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Top: Bob Hope and Ronald Reagan share quips around the microphone at the Bob Hope Desert Classic; Bottom: Dwight Eisenhower matching steps with John Kennedy, Ike’s expression suggests he’d rather be working on his short game.

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Prezzes Bush I and Clinton at the ’95 Desert Classic when the Dem fell to the Republican by a stroke.

Damsel dÉcor

The objectification of women is prominent in popular culture, as it was for 51 years at the Bob Hope Desert Classic. From 1960 to 1975, the tournament featured a queen — a young, attractive Hollywood figure selected by Hope and some of his buddies basically just to be seen. Among the monarchs who walked the grounds being ogled by the galleries were Barbara Eden, Gloria Loring, Jill St. John, and Lynda Carter.

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And speaking of looks, the Classic Girls often made people forget that golf was being played.

In 1976, the role was rebranded as Classic Girls, three local beauties whose purpose was essentially the same — look fabulous and alluring. In addition to the spectators, at least one of the golfers was happily distracted.

According to John Foster, president of Desert Classic Charities, which hosts the Hope event now called the CareerBuilder Challenge, PGA pro John Daly played in several tournaments.

“He never won,” Foster says, “but he took home one of our Classic Girls as one of his wives.” That was Paulette Dean, the third of his (so far) five wives. Their 1995 Las Vegas wedding was described in 2008 by the New York Daily News: “[Daly] wore blue jeans, cowboy boots, a dark jacket and no tie. She wore white.”

A Major Water Hazard

Singer Dinah Shore was a jock. She was also a desert resident. In 1972, the Colgate-Dinah Shore Winner’s Circle Tournament debuted as a marquee pro event for women that was granted status as one of four majors in 1983 (today it’s called the ANA Inspiration). Although she had not been associated officially with the tournament since 2000, winners still receive the Dinah Shore Trophy, and locals still call it The Dinah.

The Dinah Shore, played at Mission Hills Country Club, off Dinah Shore Drive in Rancho Mirage, has a peculiar ritual familiar to all golf fans. In 1988, Amy Alcott, who is about as bashful as a New York City taxi driver, sank her putt on the final hole, and spontaneously celebrated her victory by jumping into a pond alongside the 18th green. She did it again as the winner in 1991, that time taking Shore with her. In 1994, a month after Shore died, winner Donna Andrews took the leap that is now traditional for champions. In the desert, Poppie’s Pond is a Great Lake.

It’s not always a graceful maneuver. In 2011, winner Stacey Lewis took the plunge into Poppie’s with her mom, dad, sister, and caddie, and surfaced to learn that mom Carol had fractured her leg.