The crowd around the first tee was so large one might have thought Arnie Palmer was about to start his first round at the Masters. There were celebrities everywhere—Danny Thomas, Ray Bolger, Andy Williams, Chuck Connors, Dizzy Dean, David Janssen, indeed half the population of Sunset Boulevard. All the big-name golfers were there, too—Palmer, Bill Casper, Julius Boros, Dave Marr—everyone except Jack Nicklaus, who was still fishing down in Florida with the rest of the affluent society.
The restive gallery finally simmered down a bit, cameras stopped whirring and clicking, and Gay Brewer slammed a screamer off into the distance. Then up stepped the man everyone had come to see, Leslie Townes Hope, now in his fourth straight year as impresario and main attraction of the Bob Hope Desert Classic. Standing beside him was his supplementary caddie, Phyllis Diller, decked out in an Air Force survival jacket containing a wind-direction indicator, first-aid kit, road maps, prayer book, "super score-card adjuster," flashlight, radio, plumb line and other essentials for a round of Hopeful golf. After Bob had taken a couple of practice swings, someone yelled, "Hit the ball."
"Just what I had in mind," Hope replied and cracked his drive 200 yards down the middle. With a pardonable smirk, he joined Phyllis Diller in his golf cart and headed down the fairway, drawing the huge gallery with him. And so last week another Bob Hope special, one of the best he puts on all year, was under way.
The Desert Classic is the peak of Hope's golfing year. Last week Bob played host to 136 pros and 408 amateurs in the largest, the longest and certainly the most intricately complex tournament on the golfing calendar. The IBM Open, some call it. For the first four days each of the three-man amateur teams played on a different Palm Desert course with a different pro. On the fifth and final day the pros went at it alone over the Bermuda Dunes course to complete their 90 holes, with Mr. Palmer himself winning his first tournament of 1968 by beating Deane Beman on the second hole of sudden death.
As for Hope, his own assignment was no simpler. On Monday night he entertained at a dinner party for the pros and their wives at Eldorado. ("Welcome to Eldorado. You know what that is—Ike's rumpus room.") On Tuesday night he was host at the Classic Ball, for which 1,000 people paid $50 a head. After dining alongside Mamie Eisenhower. Hope climbed to the stage amid a standing ovation. ("It scared hell out of me. I thought they were going to walk out.") He thanked everyone for coming and added, "I'm doing pretty well this month for a guy who still has his own heart. But I'll tell you one thing. Right now I'd like to have a transfusion from Arnie Palmer."
Beginning Wednesday, Hope played 18 holes a day for four days in the pro-am. On Saturday and Sunday afternoons he spent a total of 2½ hours in coast-to-coast living color describing the action on the golf course. All told, it was the kind of week that qualifies as a "breather" in the frenetic world of Bob Hope.
Hope tangled with golf even before he got into show business. One day back in 1928 he went out to a public course called Hiram Park in Cleveland, his home town, and here is how he describes the experience. "I was so bad, I remember standing in one spot and trying to hit the ball, and four foursomes went through me. Finally, I just threw my clubs away and quit the game until I got into vaudeville. When I was at the Orpheum there was an act called the Diamond Brothers, who used to go out and play. You know, when you're in vaudeville you have a lot of time on your hands, especially in the mornings. These kids were dancers and athletes, and when they used to get up and start to leave I'd say, 'Where're you going?'
" 'Oh,' they'd say, 'we're going to play golf.' So I finally said, 'Well, I got to try that, too,' so I started going and got hooked and that was it. That was 1930."
Not long after, Hope was on the same bill in New York with a young crooner named Crosby. They discovered their mutual interest in golf and started getting up in the morning with only a couple of hours' sleep and driving out to Van Cortlandt Park in The Bronx, waiting in line for three or four hours and finally having just enough time to play nine holes before they had to dash back downtown in time to make the first show.
When Hope arrived in Hollywood to appear in Big Broadcast of 1938, he found Crosby already established on the same lot. During those early years together at Paramount, if Hope and Crosby were not on their respective sound stages, they could almost surely be found on the lawn in front of the executive offices practicing chip shots with their niblicks. Groaning in the background would be the studio gardener, watching the grass disappear. The studio brass accepted the vandalism stoically. If the boys were denied this little diversion, they would have been off the lot somewhere hitting practice balls at a driving range.
Hope was not yet the golfer that Crosby was. He had what is known in the trade as a manufactured swing, rather stiff with very little body movement. But then as now, Bob's arms and wrists and hands were powerful, and he could hit the ball a long way—when and if it went straight. Bing, on the other hand, had the same long lazy swing he has today, and it carried him to three club championships at Lakeside, the golf club in the San Fernando Valley where most of the movie golfers congregated and the home course of both Hope and Crosby. Bob, who has never ceased to envy Bing's swing, cracks: "You've got to be rich to have a swing like that."
Anyone with a new golf tip could always get Hope's ear. One such person was Bruce McCormick, a leading California amateur, who is credited with teaching Bob his lethal, stiff-wristed putting style. Everyone who plays with Hope comes away marveling over his short game and his putting. Bing understands, though. "This stroke is closer to pool shots than any of the others," he suggests, implying that Bob's youthful hours in the pool halls of Cleveland were not entirely misspent.
Hope has taken lessons from just about all the great professionals of the day, including Ben Hogan. The one he credits with first putting him on the right track is Olin Dutra, the 1934 U.S. Open champion, who was teaching in southern California when Hope first went west. Later he studied under Ed Dudley, once the pro at Colorado Springs and the Augusta National. In 1949, when Hogan served a brief term as the resident pro at the Tamarisk Golf Club in Palm Springs, Hope renewed an old friendship. "The first time I ever met Ben," Hope recalls, "was during the war when I went to Topeka for a benefit. He was in the Air Force at the time, so I had him on my show. He really surprised me because he was so great on radio. No matter what he does, he wants to be perfect, you know. I became friendly with him, and we played many a match after that, but he never started to teach me until he came to Tamarisk. I think he did a great deal for my game. I worked my handicap down to around six at the time."
Most recently Bob has been studying under George Fazio, who was the pro at the legendary Pine Valley in New Jersey, one of 18 golf clubs in Britain and the U.S. in which Hope maintains active membership.
Late last year Fazio met Hope in New York for dinner, and well past midnight the two men set out on one of the long walks before bedtime to which Hope is addicted no matter where he finds himself. As they walked, they would discuss the finer points of the golf swing and then stop while Fazio demonstrated his pointers. The two became so engrossed in what they were doing they were astonished when they looked up to find a crowd of a dozen or so curious onlookers, including two policemen, gathered around.
One of Hope's favorite golfing companions is the Rev. C. Pardee Erdman, an Episcopalian clergyman who was an outstanding amateur golfer in California in his younger days. They met during a vacation trip that Bob and his wife Dolores took to Pebble Beach some 20 years ago and they still play together frequently in Palm Springs, where Erdman has a home. In 1959, when Hope was recovering from an eye operation, he and Erdman set off on a six-week golfing holiday in Britain and the Continent that still ranks among Bob's more memorable junkets.
Erdman and Hope agreed to meet in New York the afternoon of the evening they were to fly to London. Around 3 p.m. Hope phoned Erdman and asked if he could be downstairs fully packed in 10 minutes although their plane was not to leave until 8. "We can run out to Deepdale and play a few holes before we have to go to the airport," Hope suggested.
Hope's enthusiasm for golf never ceased to amaze Erdman during their trip. At Gleneagles in Scotland, they played 36 holes a day and before leaving the country they motored over to St. Andrews, where even Hope was astounded to find some 2,000 people waiting to watch them tee off—not just the usual golfing gallery but children and women carrying babies. As many as 1,000 of them followed the match, and Hope, who is always exhilarated by an audience, put on one of his best shows. At the 18th tee he offered to stage a little trick-shot exhibition in which he would both slice and hook a drive to the middle of the fairway. The only trouble was that the intended hook, after starting off to the right, sliced instead and smashed into the window of a nearby building.
While Hope was enjoying the attentions of some 5,000 people who were waiting for him at the 18th green, the owner of the broken window fought his way through the crowd, brandishing Hope's ball. "I'll pay, I'll pay," Hope shouted above the noise of the crowd, but that wasn't what the man wanted. He wanted Bob's autograph on the ball.
Back in London, Hope and Erdman were having a late-afternoon drink in their hotel room following a round of golf in the suburbs when Bob suddenly burst out with, "My God, I forgot that King." He explained to Erdman that when King Baudouin of Belgium had visited Hollywood, he had invited Hope to play golf with him in his homeland. Hope thereupon grabbed the phone and asked the operator to get him the Royal Palace in Brussels. He was told that the King had gone home for the day. A few minutes later Hope's phone rang, and it was the King inviting him to be in Brussels for lunch and golf the next day.
The two travelers were met at the airport by the King's limousine, a dowdy Buick of indeterminate vintage. As they were being driven up the driveway of the Royal Golf Club they were followed by a Mercedes-Benz convertible with a young man at the wheel. It turned out to be the King, who bounded out of his own car to open the Buick's door for Hope.
After lunch, the usual first-tee bargaining began, and the inevitable question of stakes arose. "Well," said Bob, "that palace of yours is a nice-looking building. How about playing for that?" When the King demurred, Bob suggested "that secondhand Buick that brought us in from the airport."
The King may or may not have enjoyed the gag. Hope himself is not certain. What he does remember is that it was a lovely day and that there were 18 holes to be played.