By Peter Funt
At a time when the presence of celebrities seems to overwhelm professional sports (Taylor Swift, I’m looking at you in your sparkly Travis Kelce jersey), it’s noteworthy that this year’s AT&T Pro-Am golf tournament will be, for the first time since Bing Crosby brought his “Clambake” to Pebble Beach, essentially celebrity-free.
Gone are the days when Bing was accompanied on the links by drinking buddy and comedian Phil Harris, who enjoyed telling onlookers he was the pro from “The Jack Daniels Country Club.” Or more recent antics from Bill Murray, who became the event’s course jester, often swiping a sip of a patron’s beer at green side.
For this year’s tournament, which begins Feb. 1, more serious golf and fewer shenanigans were needed to qualify as what the PGA Tour calls a “Signature Event.” There will be half as many players, no weekend cuts — and no high-handicap celebrities. Some 80 amateurs will remain in the field for the first two rounds — mostly high-paying donors to the tournament’s charities — plus an odd sprinkling of professional athletes from other sports, including football’s Tom Brady and baseball’s Buster Posey.
But there won’t be anything resembling comic Tom Smothers doing tricks with his yo-yo as he waited to tee off, or actor Jack Lemmon breaking hearts as he failed to get beyond the third round in over two dozen tries. “I would trade my two Oscars to make the cut and play Sunday at Pebble Beach,” Lemmon said.
I have mixed feelings about this year’s changes, having played in the event three times. There was certainly nothing else like it in showbiz or sports: competing alongside a professional in a real Tour event, for cash prizes, before a nationwide TV audience. But in truth, the celebrity portion was merely a gimmick. We weren’t the best amateurs, only the most well-connected. I got in thanks to my friend and neighbor Clint Eastwood, an owner at Pebble Beach and a frequent participant in the old Pro-Am.
Most of the pros were gracious when we slowed them down with errant shots or, as was occasionally the case with Bill Murray, caused such a ruckus that it was hard to concentrate. Other pros, however, were irked and began skipping the event, which is why this year’s changes were made to lure them back.
For those of us who in other settings were reasonably comfortable standing in front of cameras and huge audiences, hitting a tee shot on the first hole at Pebble Beach was beyond terrifying. Warming up on the driving range one year, comic actor Ray Romano told me, “If I hit more than 14 lousy shots today, I’m dead.” I asked why. “I’ve only prepared 14 funny excuses,” he explained.
Honestly, I think most golf fans hope to see a pro hit a soaring 3-wood from 250 yards to within a few feet of the pin. But when a so-called celebrity swings, entertainment only happens if his shot is shanked miserably into the ocean.
In Bing Crosby’s day it was fun and games. In today’s high-stakes golf business there just isn’t room for both.