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A Vote for Calling The Crosby by its Right Name

By John M. Ross,
Bing Crosby
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Legendary singer - and golf fanatic - Bing Crosby. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

At this time of the year, with the January thaw running late, there is no better place for a frost-bound hacker than Pebble Beach, the picturesque California peninsula which, many believe, is God's special gift to the game.

This is where the world's best golfers gather at this time and, mixed with Hollywood's brightest stars and other celebrities, they play the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. They've been doing this for the past 53 years, and for all that time it has remained a special kind of tournament for both golfer and fans. A special favorite, too.

The name above the title now is AT&T, the short form for the telecommunications giant. Many years ago, when I first checked it out, everyone called it the "Crosby Clambake." And many still do, even though the beloved Bing Crosby has not been with us for 24 years now and AT&T is putting up the $4 million purse and providing the hospitality.

It is the centerpiece of the West Coast Swing that kicks off the first segment of the PGA Tour, but when it began in 1937 it was an extremely risky venture. There were slim pickings for the touring pros in those days: few tournaments and fewer sponsors willing to put up the prize money. Crosby, an ardent amateur golfer who played with the pros from time to time, discussed this with his friend, Tony Penna, a prominent player in the early days of the tour who went on to become a well-known club-maker.

The tour was struggling through an especially skimpy West Coast schedule at the time, and Penna thought a pro-am type of event, to which Bing could invite some of his golfing Hollywood friends, could fit very nicely. The idea intrigued Crosby.

The pro-am format certainly was different, and his Hollywood buddies could get a chance to meet the pros and perhaps even learn a little more about the game. "It'll be more like a gathering of friends," he told Tony, "and then, at the end, we'll have a big barbecue."

That was the birth of the Crosby Pro-Am.

They decided to limit the event to 36 holes over two days, and hold it at the Rancho Santa Fe Club, near Bing's home in the suburbs of San Diego. The invitations were snapped up quickly, for not only was Bing one of the Hollywood's top box office attractions at the time, but he was rapidly becoming America's most beloved performer. He was someone even the big-time stars liked to cultivate.

With a dazzling array of film people on hand, disaster struck. Rain greeted the first day. Not just rain, but rainy rain. Streams came up over the banks, and in one case the bridge connecting to a green was washed away. Trying to stick it out, booted firemen carried the golfers over the stream so they could putt out. Ultimately, the round was canceled.

Of course, many look back on that opener as an omen of things to come. Over the years Bing's event has had a history of bad weather, especially on the Monterey Peninsula. "Crosby weather" has worked its way into the golfer's lingo for any series of rapidly changing conditions. I remember the 1974 Crosby, when the rain came on Saturday and continued for the next five days. The event was cut back to 54 holes. Another time, we got two inches of snow at Pebble Beach, and when deer romped along some of the fairways, it looked more like a Christmas card scene than a golf tournament.

Incidentally, Sam Snead won that very first Crosby with a 68, and received a check for $500. Not much, you say. True. Not even for a one-round event. But bear in mind, the leading money winner of the previous year, Horton Smith, pocketed only $7,600.

Even with the one-round washout, Crosby was pleased with the excitement stirred up by his unique event. Movie stars and other celebrities on a golf course gave the game another dimension. He went forward for another four years with the event at Rancho Santa Fe until World War II shut down just about everything.

When peace came to the world, Bing decided to alter his pro-am format, expanding the event to four rounds played on three different courses. To achieve this, he elected to move up the coast to Monterey Peninsula, where an array of excellent coursers suited his needs perfectly. Under this scheme, the field would rotate through the Pebble Beach, Cypress Point and Monterey Peninsula courses over the first three rounds. The field would then be cut for the final round to the 25 pro-am teams and the 60 low pros and they would play at Pebble Beach.

The format remained intact until Spyglass Hill, a new Trent Jones course, replaced the Monterey Peninsula Club in 1967.

To show his appreciation to all those who came on the run to make the idea work, Crosby dug into his pocket to stage a huge party on the eve of the tournament, complete with dinner, open bar and entertainment. For the last, Bing tapped some of his Tinseltown pals to do a turn, and he wound up with the biggest names in show business pitching in. It quickly became the golf event of the year.

The advent of golf on TV didn't hurt, either. Bing was asked to do some of the commentary, and with his glib, easygoing style, he sent the show's ratings soaring. Of course, turning a bunch of extroverts loose on the course with the cameras churning could only produce the unexpected and fun. The play almost became secondary to the antics around the edges.

I remember one Crosby when Johnny Weissmuller, the former Olympic champion and the original Tarzan in the film series, hit a ball that lodged in a tree. He decided to try to knock it out. He nudged it onto the fairway, but before climbing down, he hung by one hand from a branch and with the other pounded his chest and gave out a Tarzan yell, as he had done in so many movies. The gallery howled in delight.

And then there was the colorful Tommy Bolt - Terrible Tempered Tommy. He was getting ready to hit when a couple of deer came strolling across the fairway. Tommy stepped back and waited. Setting up again, just before his waggle, another deer drifted across, in no hurry at all.

Infuriated, Tommy backed off and bellowed: "Enough of this! Where are the marshals?"

Of course, in recent years we've had the ongoing struggle of Jack Lemmon trying ever-so-valiantly to make the cut. The Clambake not only raised million for the Crosby Youth Fund, but with its successful pro-am format set the foundation for new financial stability for the golf tours. In rapid succession, other tournaments embraced the celebrity format. Bob Hope, Bing's comedic sidekick, was quick to jump in with his Desert Classic in Palm Springs, starting in 1960. Others followed, like Jackie Gleason, Dean Martin and Andy Williams, among others. Indeed, at one time there were nine events that had a celebrity's name above the title. And purses have been soaring ever since.

In case you haven't noticed, most of them have disappeared like Bing's and have been replaced by corporate titles.

Crosby's name remained on the event for nine years following his death in 1977, and there was some mystery surrounding the decision to change. Apparently, Crosby heirs decided they didn't want to mix Bing's name with a commercial sponsor's when AT&T signed on.

Next year is the 25th anniversary of Bing's death. Wouldn't it be a wonderful and lasting tribute to Bing if the right people could get together and put his name back on the Pebble Beach Pro-Am? The game owes that much to him.

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

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