LA QUINTA, CALIFORNIA | My father used to take me to the Bob Hope Desert Classic. We knew it was a big deal because everybody called it the Hope. Just like the Nabisco Dinah Shore was the Dinah and the Bing Crosby Pro-Am was the Crosby. They all had one-word names.
At the Hope, celebrities were everywhere. One year I decided to write down the names, so I kept the list — there was Hope with his big nose, along with Dwight Eisenhower, Jackie Gleason, Bing Crosby, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, Desi Arnaz, Phil Harris, Ray Bolger and Hoagy Carmichael.
That’s as far as I got. There were too many of them. Hey, I was just a kid.
Even the streets were linked to celebrities. It was impossible to drive 10 minutes without seeing a road named after Frank Sinatra, Fred Waring, Ginger Rogers or somebody else famous.
The Hope and Crosby tournaments were famous for their celebrities. This was better than Hollywood because the actors and musicians actually talked to spectators. They were real people. Wow.
After nearly 60 years as part of the PGA Tour, the Hope is in danger. The 2019 event is called the Desert Classic and does not have a title sponsor. Chrysler is long gone. So are Humana and CareerBuilder. The only reason the 2019 event has a purse of $5.9 million is that CareerBuilder, the most recent title sponsor, was contractually obligated to contribute its share.
So what’s going on here? No PGA Tour event in the Southern California desert? No Hope? Preposterous.
Well, listen to the optimism of Jeff Sanders, a former PGA Tour player who is executive vice president of golf events for Lagardère Sports. Sanders is the guy who masterminds the Desert Classic, and Lagardère is in its second year of running the event.
“There is no concern about this event continuing,” Sanders proclaimed. “It will continue. There will be a new sponsor at some time, probably soon.
“Furthermore, Golfchella (with its musical concerts) will continue. That’s because it works. People want to be entertained. They want to watch PGA Tour golf, but they also want to go to concerts. We give them both.”
A Desert Classic ticket costs $30, which includes four days of golf plus concerts on Friday and Saturday nights. The ticket also provides entry to Von’s Food Pavilion, where spectators can purchase a huge variety of food and drink.
There is no cover charge or mandatory wrist band for spectators, and Sanders calls it “the most affordable ticket on the PGA Tour, tied with the Safeway Open.”
There is a tie because the Safeway event in Napa, Calif., also is run by Lagardère Sports. Sanders has seen the future, and it is loud and it is affordable. This year’s concert headliners at the Desert Classic are Sammy Hagar and Bad Company.
Sanders admits that Golfchella is piggybacking on the success of two other desert musical extravaganzas — the Coachella Music Festival and the Stagecoach Festival.
“Things have changed. It’s different now,” Sanders said. “We have a great product that includes golf and music, and it doesn’t cost very much for spectators. It’s a new world out there.”
The winner’s share of the Desert Classic purse is $1,062,000, but the event will be forced to lobby hard in 2020 for a stronger field. World No. 1 Justin Rose is here for the 2019 event, and seventh-ranked Jon Rahm is the defending champion, but only three of the top 33 in the world have entered.
Regardless, Sanders remains positive. If only he could get President Donald Trump, who is No. 1 in celebrity circles, to attend. Of course, Trump has more substantial meetings and policies to worry about.
But once upon a time — Feb. 15, 1995, to be precise — a presidential gathering really happened here when Gerald Ford, George Bush and Bill Clinton played golf with Hope as a prelude to the PGA Tour’s Hope event. Clinton was the sitting president.
When I asked Ford about his nagging old football injury, he rolled up his pants leg to show me his scar.
It was a weird day. Spectators were required to walk through an X-ray machine as they entered the property, Secret Service agents quickly lost control of the situation. Clearly they knew little or nothing about golf. In the parking lot, I was walking right beside Clinton. If I reached out, I could have touched him. I had visions of a newspaper headline: “Journalist jailed for assaulting President Clinton.”
Ford, clearly a terrible golfer, managed to hit an opening tee shot that flew sideways and looked suspiciously like a driver shank. But that was nothing compared to the iron shot he hit from a woman’s backyard. Never mind that the ball was at least 20 yards out of bounds before he hit it.
“President Ford just hit a shot from my backyard,” the woman crowed, as if Ford had just won the U.S. Open.
Ford and Clinton were among the slowest golfers ever to lace up their FootJoys. Meanwhile, Bush was some 200 yards ahead of his playing companions as the group reached the back nine. He had a well-deserved reputation as one of the fastest golfers on earth.
I plopped to the ground, watching with curiosity. I had a media credential that allowed me to separate myself from the throng of 6,000 spectators. Bush chipped his ball onto the putting surface and yelled to nobody in particular, “Five, that’s a bogey.”
Because Ford and Clinton appeared to be headed for triple or quadruple bogeys, Bush joined me on the ground. He introduced himself and shook my hand. Then, looking in the general direction of where Clinton seemed to be, he exclaimed, “Where the hell is he?”
Our conversation got no deeper than that, but I was impressed by his friendliness. After all, I could have been a Democrat.
Hope, the beloved comedian, was 91 at the time. Essentially he was blind. On every shot, he needed aiming help from his caddie. It was sad. However, to his credit, he did not whiff all day.
I am proud to report that I made a friend that day. After the round of golf was concluded, Ford agreed to meet me for an interview. It occurred at his house alongside Thunderbird Country Club.
Ford dismissed the Secret Service representatives before we started to talk. When I asked Ford about his nagging old football injury, he rolled up his pants leg to show me his scar.
Now that’s something to brag about. Another story for the grandkids — me, alone with the former president, who was busy pointing to a jagged scar on his leg.
Hope is gone. His old tournament no longer carries his name. The gang of celebrities is gone as well. As Sanders said to me, “Everything changes. We know how to run a great golf tournament in today’s world — it’s PGA Tour golf during the day and concerts at night. It’s all very affordable. We don’t need a bunch of celebrities.”
I don’t know about that. I miss the old days. Next year, in 2020, if Trump decides to wear a fake Bob Hope nose and attend the Desert Classic, he just might get my vote in the presidential election.
Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, comedian Bob Hope and President Gerald Ford played a round of golf before the 1995 Bob Hope Desert Classic. Photo: Courtesy, Desert Classic Charities.
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