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Playing With the Pros

Ever Since Bing Crosby's "Clambakes," pro-ams have allowed amateurs to compete with PGA stars
Robert Lowell
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Spacey, Jan/Feb 02

(continued from page 1)

In January of 1937, Crosby held his first Bing Crosby Pro-Am. The professional winner was Sam Snead. Among the top pros were Paul Runyon, Lloyd Mangrum and Olin Dutra. From Hollywood came Crosby's friends, including Fred Astaire, Richard Arlen and Zeppo Marx. Crosby handpicked every player, assigned handicaps to the amateurs and oversaw every detail. This was definitely Crosby's show, one that became known as The Clambake. That's pretty much what it was, a get-together of Bing's cronies to play a little golf and do a lot of partying.

Six Clambakes were staged at Rancho Sante Fe before they were disrupted by the Second World War. Crosby resumed the Clambake 400 miles to the north on the Monterey Peninsula in 1947 at the beckoning of local merchants who felt the tournament would benefit the post-war economy. Crosby used Pebble Beach, Cypress Point Golf Club and Monterey Peninsula Country Club, playing a second and final round at Pebble Beach on Sunday. With the move, the tournament was expanded and its difficulty greatly increased. The new courses were tougher, the weather, more severe. January on the Monterey Peninsula could be downright balmy at times but seldom during the Crosby. The combination of difficult courses and inclement weather led Crosby's old friend, Bob Hope, to call the tournament "Alcatraz with grass." Crosby was not amused.

The move to Pebble Beach would forever change The Clambake. It would become a tournament to be won, not just to enjoy. Though it was still called The Clambake, it officially became known as the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am.

No one brought as much passion to the tournament, with so little success, as Jack Lemmon. The everyman actor tried mightily to achieve every amateur's goal: to make the cut to the top 25 teams after three rounds and play the fourth and final round at Pebble Beach on Sunday. He never did, though it wasn't for lack of trying.

Lemmon remembered one year in the late '80s when, in the months leading to the tournament, he gave his ultimate effort. He practiced and took lessons at his home club, the Hillside Country Club in Los Angeles. He even lifted a few weights. He came to the AT&T filled with confidence; this would be his year. As he stood on the first tee at Cypress Point to start his first round, Lemmon remarked to his longtime professional partner, Peter Jacobsen, how good he felt, how this was going to be the year they made the cut.

He stepped up to the tee for his opening drive. He took a huge swing, at least by Lemmon's standards, but barely made contact with the ball. It hit somewhere on the very top of the toe of the club, waffling off to the right as if he had struck a whiffle ball, before heading for an elderly woman in the first row of the gallery. With ease, she caught it. Pointing down the fairway, Jacobsen ran toward her yelling, "Throw it, throw it!" No makeup artist could have made Lemmon's face redder.

Even if he didn't get to play the last day, Lemmon took away a bucket full of memories from the Crosby, mostly a litany of his bad shots and complete failings. He loved to tell the tales on himself, especially when it came to playing in the Crosby Weather, which even included snow, in 1962, which did not have Crosby singing "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas." Tournament rounds have been postponed so many times that officials ought to consider making it a four-round event that spans five days -- affording a spare day for bad weather.

The wind alone can take its toll even on a sunny day. In 1990, play was suspended when 40-mile-an-hour gusts would not allow balls to come to a rest on the ocean holes at Cypress Point. Ed Dougherty had to pencil in a 14 on the par-4 17th at Cypress, a few of those penalty strokes for soling his putter behind the ball and then watching the ball move from the force of the wind.

Humiliation in front of thousands is part of playing in the AT&T. A lot of celebrities got used to it. But it can be intimidating for a first-time player. Ballet superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov played in his first AT&T Pro-Am in 2001. Baryshnikov had picked up the golf sickness from his friend, Joe Pesci, the actor who is a regular in West Coast pro-ams. In his prime, Baryshnikov had been a dancer of immense athleticism, power and grace.

On the golf course, however, he has a handicap in the upper teens and his small, muscular body seems at odds with the physical requirements of the golf swing. Faced with a large gallery, Baryshnikov felt jitters unlike any he had felt waiting in the wings before a performance. There are no duck hooks in Swan Lake.

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