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The Good Life

Playing With the Pros

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

Jack Lemmon was hunched over the ball with his pitching wedge, playing a par 5 on the eighth hole at Cypress Point during a round at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. The course had been soaked from days of rain, and the popular actor, who once noted that the tournament was "where we all get together to embarrass ourselves," was trying to loft the ball to the green. He hit the ball fat -- that is, he hit the turf well behind the ball. The huge divot he took from the drenched turf stuck to his club head, and the ball stuck to the divot. On his follow-through he tossed the ball about 10 yards behind him.

Lemmon played the next shot into a greenside bunker, where the story gets worse. The bunker sand was sodden, though there was no standing water in it. Like most golfers hitting a sand shot, Lemmon dug his shoes down into the sand, which was more like a quagmire. He played the shot onto the green, only to discover that he couldn't get to the green himself. He was trapped in the thick mire of the sand, so much so that he finally extracted his feet from his shoes, leaving them in the bunker for the caddie to retrieve. He putted out in his socks and joined his shoes at the next tee.

"You know, I'd wonder sometimes, when it was windy and rainy, what the hell I was doing out there," Lemmon, who passed away last June, once remarked. "But at the end of the day, when you got together with all these wonderful people, it seemed to be worth it. If you could stand up, that is."

The AT&T Pro-Am, once known as the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am, is an annual gathering each January of PGA Tour professionals, Hollywood celebrities, star athletes and corporate executives. The world's most famous pro-am tournament is played on America's most legendary public course, the Pebble Beach Golf Links, located on California's Monterey Peninsula. While Pebble Beach is the home course for the event, nearby Spyglass Hill and Poppy Hills golf clubs are also used. And, more often than not, the AT&T is played in what has been dubbed "Crosby Weather." Defined by rain, wind and cold, Crosby Weather is often the worst conditions the pros face all year.

The pro-am format has become a staple of the PGA Tour, with 40 of the 50 tournaments played each year leading off with it. Each week, amateurs pony up on average $4,000 to be part of a group that includes one of the tournament's qualifying players. The pro-am's usually on a Wednesday, and the normal format is a threesome or a foursome of amateurs with a pro playing for a single day; the Crosby's format is unique because it has two-man teams, one pro and one amateur, playing for four days. For the pros, it's a weekly practice round, albeit one in the company of, well, let's be truthful, real hackers.

Pro-ams are conducted by the operational bodies of PGA Tour events, not by the PGA Tour itself. The standard number of teams for a one-day event is 52; 54 if a shotgun start is used. Eighty percent of the pros come right off the top of the prior year's money list; the rest are sponsor invitees. That means if Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and David Duval are in a tournament, they must play in the pro-am. But if you are Joe Shmoe ponying up a few thousand to play in the pro-am, don't expect to play with Tiger or Phil or David. The marquee players will be paired with title sponsor executives and other significant underlying sponsors. Joe Schmoe's team must select one of the remaining pros at a pre-tournament draft party.

The pro-ams have become principal fund-raising vehicles for golf tournaments, which annually donate to local charities. The one-day tourneys can be useful marketing tools, too, providing loyal fans with a chance to rub shoulders with their favorite pros, or at least someone whom they may have seen in a final group on television on Sunday.

The Palm Beach Invitational of 1938 was the first tournament to donate money to charity as a PGA Tour event. The check was for $10,000. Today, the numbers are bigger. At the end of the 2001 season, PGA Tour events had raised more than half a billion dollars for charity over their history. As a result, charity is a driving force in all golf tournaments. Without the charitable aspect, it would be difficult to get volunteers and corporate sponsors for these costly events. The AT&T Pro-Am is not only the center of charitable giving on the Monterey Peninsula (about $4 million per year), it has been the longest-standing model of charitable funding in the game, serving as the mother of all pro-ams. For many local charities, the AT&T is their main source of annual revenue, doled out by the Monterey Peninsula Foundation, which runs the tournament.

It all started at the Crosby.

The heart, soul and voice of this remarkable tournament was Bing Crosby. Crosby's golf game was nearly as smooth as his singing. He owned a ranch in Rancho Santa Fe, California, north of San Diego. In 1936, he decided to stage a pro-am nearby that would pair his friends from the celebrity and business world with top PGA professionals. He, himself, put up the $3,000 prize money that made the tournament legit.

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.

"It can be quite scary," says Baryshikov. "When I dance I usually don't even see my audience. The lights blind me to the audience; it's just black out there. And I'm doing something that I have done all my life and trained for all my life. Now I get on a golf course, playing a game where I don't have much experience. It is daylight and the audience is all around you. It is quite intimidating when you aren't doing the thing that you do best."

Captains of industry, used to ruling thousands of workers from plush offices, are brought down to the company cafeteria level at the AT&T. Herb Kohler Jr., of the Kohler Co. in Kohler, Wisconsin, has played in several AT&Ts. "You never know what it is to top a tee shot until you play at Pebble Beach," says Kohler, a tough 17 handicapper who owns his own golfing empire in Wisconsin, Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits. "But even though you get humiliated once in a while, it's a lot of fun. I like playing with some young pro I haven't heard of before. The field is so big here that a lot of these young guys can get into the field, and it's interesting to talk with them about their careers and what they are trying to accomplish."

Megastar Kevin Costner first played in the AT&T in 1996 after the release of his golf movie, Tin Cup. Playing in the group ahead of Costner and pro Lee Janzen was Bill Torrey, the president of the National Hockey League's Florida Panthers. His pro was PGA Tour regular Fred Funk. The other pairing was New York Mets co-owner Nelson Doubleday and his pro, the journeyman Jim McGovern. All through the round, spectators rushed ahead of the Janzen-Costner pairing to get a better look. So Torrey's group was almost constantly surrounded by a gallery that it would not have otherwise attracted. That was the joke during the round. "Nelson and I would always remark to Fred and Jim that we had no idea they had just a great and boisterous following," said Torrey.

The following year, Costner played with new friend and golf champion Tiger Woods. It was one of the most glamorous pairings in the history of the tournament and thousands of people followed the group. "Just let me hit the ball, just let me hit it," said Costner on the practice range before the start of the round. "You bet, I'm nervous."

Then with a throng following the group at Spyglass Hill, Costner was only two over par after eight holes. It was a performance that he noted to those standing at the rear of the ninth tee. "I'm only two over, can you believe it?" he exclaimed. That was exactly the wrong thought pattern. He doubled-bogeyed the ninth hole and struggled for the rest of the round.

The Monterey Peninsula crowd comes out to see the stars. They come out to see comic Bill Murray and pitching great Roger Clemens. They come out to see Carmel, California, resident, former mayor and screen superstar Clint Eastwood, a longtime supporter of the event, who in 1996 flew his helicopter low over the third and 18th fairways at Pebble Beach to help dry the grass after monsoons had soaked the place. (The event was canceled that year following two rounds.) The crowd does not come out to see Bill Torrey and Nelson Doubleday, no matter how influential they are in the world of sports.

Crosby, who died in 1977, was still running the show in 1968 when Torrey first played. At the time, Torrey was the executive vice president of the Oakland Seals hockey team, and Crosby was a limited partner. "It was very much Bing's thing," said Torrey. "It seemed like so many players played there every year because Bing wanted them to. There were a lot of long-standing pro-amateur pairings."

After the 1985 tournament, Crosby's widow, Kathryn, got into a dispute with the tournament's board of directors because she didn't want a corporate sponsor, prompting her to take Crosby's name off the title. In 1986 the event officially became the AT&T, and Torrey noticed the difference when he returned to play in 1997. "I don't want to say it was more friendly back then, but it seemed like it," says Torrey. "I don't want to say it was more intimate but it probably was. It was still good fun, but I think people were bearing down more to win."

What makes the AT&T stand out from the other pro-ams on the PGA Tour, like the long-running Bob Hope Desert Classic, is that it's a bona fide tournament for the amateurs. It's bona fide enough that there is often suspicion about the legitimacy of an amateur's handicap. When Australian Kerry Packer paired with Greg Norman and won the tournament by six shots in 1992, some eyebrows were raised, if not scorched. But Lou Russo, the tournament director from 1985 to 1998, felt that Packer had been given an appropriate handicap. "A year before, Packer almost died of a heart attack," said Russo. "He was a good player but hadn't played in a long time. He was very competitive and very much wanted to play in our tournament, so in the weeks leading up to it he practiced hard, took lessons and tried to get himself in shape, though the scores he was posting weren't all that good. But when the tournament came around he played well, Greg played well and they lapped the field."

Three years later, another controversy erupted when a Japanese businessman, real estate entrepreneur Masashi Yamada, played so much better than his handicap indicated. After he and his partner, Bruce Vaughan, won the team competition, officials looked into his handicap scoring in Japan and found that the scores were all coming from a course he owned. He was disqualified. Russo says there has been increased vigilance over the years.

The golf courses, the terrain and the weather combine to make the AT&T the most difficult of all pro-ams. But celebrities and corporate magnates keep coming back, more than willing to shell out the $7,500 entry fee should they wrangle an invitation to the tournament. They brave the wind, the rain and the difficult courses; they suffer the butterflies in the stomach and the shakes in the hand, because, after all, this is the most prestigious pro-am in the world.


Robert Lowell is a freelance writer based in New York.


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