It's too cold outside to play golf but you have the itch, so you flip on the old set to watch Big Jack launch the new season in one of those warm places where you'd like to be. Perhaps you'll pick up a few pointers. Now the old set may be fuzzy, but the big Jack you see hamming it up is not the one you had in mind, and all you can learn from him is how to do a soft shoe across a green. The celebrity season is under way, and for the next month the pro tour will feature actors, crooners and an ex-President, most of them swinging like prospectors digging for gold. But everyone has fun, which is what Bing Crosby, the man who started it all, had in mind 40 years ago when he invited a bunch of friends to a clambake. Later this month son Nathaniel, 16, who is a one-handicap golfer, will host the Crosby. So tune in just about any weekend and you, too, can be swinging on a star.
THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES, BOB AND BING
No one has played in more pro-celebrity golf tournaments than Bob Hope. He was there at the beginning, paired with Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and his friend Bing Crosby at Rancho Santa Fe, eight years before the Crosby moved north to Pebble Beach. This year, at 74, he will probably appear at a dozen tournaments, most immediately Tucson, Phoenix, the Crosby and, of course, his own Desert Classic, at Palm Springs.
"I play only one day at my tournament," Hope said recently. "It's a hectic week, with guests and parties. President Ford added a lot to last year's event. He asked me if I minded if he played all four days. Minded? The word got around, and we had our biggest year. Just the other day we were able to donate $846,000 to charity."
Hope is a 15-handicapper these days. "I used to be a four," he says. "I seem to play even better in pro-ams. They steel me. I'm up and alive. I'm part tiger anyway, and playing in front of large crowds improves my game."
One veteran pro who has been paired with virtually every celebrity agrees with Hope's self-analysis. "He's a very tough competitor," the man says. "His swing is good and he's a straight driver. He keeps the ball in play."
Here are the pro's scouting reports on other celebrities:
Glen Campbell (nine handicap): "Very good. Length is his strong point. Bobby Nichols and he are good friends and Bobby has given him a lot of help."
Joe Garagiola (15): "Enthusiastic."
Flip Wilson (18): "Looks like Lee Elder, plays like Katie Elder."
Alan Shepard (15): "A weekend player with a dry sense of humor. He'll have completely severed your leg before you realize he's pulling it."
Jackie Gleason (14): "His swing may not be picturesque, but his pool-cue finesse is evident around the greens."
Clint Eastwood (18): "Good friends with Raymond Floyd. Prefers tennis."
Efrem Zimbalist (12): "Nice guy, takes a lot of lessons."
Andy Williams (16): "A good short game, but not much else."
James Garner (four): "An excellent player who once had a terrible temper. Years ago he had a tantrum and picked up in one pro-celeb. When the tournament was over, it was suggested he be given the award for the amateur who helped his partner most."
Gerald Ford (15): "He never got to play enough. Why shouldn't he now? He showed up for seven pro-ams last year. What else has he got to do?"
Jack Lemmon (17): "Probably the worst of the celebrities, but the guy tries very hard. You have to like him for that. He once said he'd rather do Hamlet unrehearsed than play in a pro-am."
"Most celebrities love these events," says Arnold Palmer. "They're golfers. They enjoy the game, participating in competition. And I think they enjoy the fans watching them, the attention.
"Sure, they get nervous. Heck, pros get nervous on the first tee, too. Here the pro sets the mood. If he's relaxed, the amateur tends to be. If he's dead serious, the celeb plays it straight."
A story is told of a show-biz personality who turned up "very tired," as they put it, on the first tee at the Hope. He teed up his ball and took a swing at it, missing on the outside. Then he missed on the inside. Then he picked up, at which point his partner said, "Don't stop now. You have a no-hitter going."
Dave Marr, now a television commentator, recalls his first Crosby. He played with Robert Goulet, who Marr says, "hadn't had much instruction." But that seldom matters on such occasions. More memorable was walking to the practice putting green at the Del Monte Lodge and hearing a terrible scream coming from the ground-floor bar. Marr ran over, thinking someone had been killed. It turned out to be Johnny Weissmuller giving his Tarzan yell.
"Another time," Marr says, "I went to the putting green at dawn—I had an early tee time—and no one was around, not even fans. The only person there was Gordon MacRae, who was practicing while singing Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'. And, you know, it was."
There is a pleasant camaraderie for the participants, but why does the public pay good money to watch mediocre golf? SI's Dan Jenkins says, "They just want to see celebrities standing around in their cashmeres looking like they do on television. They don't particularly want to see them looking for a ball in the ice plant. Most people live in St. Louis, or somewhere, and the only celebrity they've ever seen is a local disc jockey opening a new supermarket. If Tom Brokaw went to Des Moines and played Ping-Pong, people would flock to see him.
"I remember when I was 10 or 11, Bob Hope came to Fort Worth to play a golf exhibition at River Crest Country Club. It must have been to sell war bonds. I hustled out there and went 18 holes—not to see how well Hope hit the golf ball but just to see Bob Hope. I'll never forget one of his lines. He stood on a tee, addressing the ball. Then somebody started up a movie camera, which in those days made a considerable noise. Hope looked at the guy and said, 'Why the hell don't you shave at home?' Everybody fell down laughing, including me. It may have been the last time I ever laughed at a celebrity."