The ongoing turmoil between the PGA Tour and the upstart LIV series provides a backdrop for revisiting the pivotal role played by one of the most famous entertainers of the 20th century, Frank Sinatra, and 11-time PGA Tour winner Frank Beard in the split between the PGA Tour and the PGA of America. At the time, Sinatra, who was one of the most famous people on the planet in the 1950s and ’60s, had little in common with the tour stalwart other than having the same first name. However, the two men share an interesting link that culminated in the resolution of golf’s first major schism in 1968, which ultimately led to an amicable divorce and 54 years of peaceful coexistence within the ecosystem of the game – a balance that has since been disrupted by LIV’s launch earlier this year.
A good place to start this tale is 1959, when the Laurel Valley Golf Club opened in Ligonier, Pennsylvania. Local resident Arnold Palmer was one of the founders. By then, Palmer had won 10 pro tournaments, including the 1958 Masters. He was the tour’s leading money winner in 1958 with earnings of $42,608. Adjusted to present-day dollars, that comes to about $436,732, which is exactly what Paul Barjon earned in 2021-2022 to finish 168th on the PGA Tour money list. When Palmer, then a 29-year-old with a young family, was offered the full-time job as head professional at Laurel Valley, he seriously considered it.
Such was the status of a top touring pro in the late 1950s. Since the PGA Tour’s inception in the 1930s, it was an offshoot of the PGA of America, an organization run by and for club pros whose main jobs were to give lessons and sell merchandise. Almost all of the great pro golfers from the early days – including Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, and Sam Snead – needed club jobs to make a decent living. The last club pro to win a major was Claude Harmon, the Winged Foot pro who captured the 1948 Masters. In the late 1950s, most upper-echelon tour pros still affiliated themselves with a club. If they didn’t ring up sales in the pro shop or teach on the driving range, they at least dropped in occasionally to hobnob with members.
Then, in 1960, Palmer won the Masters and the U.S. Open in dramatic fashion on television. All of a sudden, professional golf was a sexy business. Within two years, Palmer was earning $500,000 a year from prize money, endorsements, and exhibitions.
Palmer’s success hit pro golf like a tsunami. Television dollars beckoned. The PGA of America was in way over its head, but it would take time before tour pros realized it. In 1962, the PGA tour was littered with stops in Tucson, Baton Rouge, Pensacola, St. Petersburg, Hot Springs, Beaumont, and Coral Gables, all of which had $20,000 purses. Lafayette, Louisiana offered $17,500, and Mobile, Alabama $11,500. Even in 1962, this was chump change. Plus, the rift between the bodies was growing as the skill set required to manage clubs had nothing to do with maximizing the earning potential of tour pros.
That is where Frank Sinatra came onto the scene. In 1962, one of the most lucrative events was the Bing Crosby Pro-Am, which offered a purse of $50,000. At the time, it was the only tour event then hosted by a celebrity. Sinatra idolized Crosby (who was 12 years older), but the two were also rivals. They may have been equals as crooners – though Sinatra was the better actor – but Crosby was by far the better golfer. At his peak, Crosby was a 2-handicap and played in a U.S. Amateur while Sinatra was reported to be around a 24. But the competitor in Sinatra would not let Crosby have all the fun. The “Chairman of the Board” decided he wanted his own tournament as well.
Thus, the Frank Sinatra Open Invitational was calendared for November 1963 at the 2-year-old Canyon Club in Palm Springs. At the time, the Coachella Valley was a sleepy resort area with a total population of about 54,000. Palm Springs had hosted pro tournaments in the winter since 1954, and the 1964 edition was scheduled for late January. Nonetheless, the PGA of America approved Sinatra’s tournament.
“A shakedown cruise for many years of golf tournaments to come,” is what Sinatra called his event. He offered a $50,000 purse – matching the 1963 Crosby – which Sinatra put up himself. He also gave copper-plated Toney Penna putters with the singer’s likeness on the head to all participants. Plus, players could hobnob with A-List celebrities, including Sinatra’s fellow Rat Packers, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. (both of whom, in time, would host their own PGA events). However, money, trinkets and stars could not entice the Big Three (Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player) to depart from their plans to play in Australia at that time. But the Sinatra field did include marquee names such as Tony Lema, Sam Snead, Billy Casper and Doug Sanders. Admission was only $1, with proceeds going to Sinatra’s foundation, which benefited youth organizations.
On Monday, qualifying was held for 70 spaces in the field. This is where Frank Beard entered the picture. He was a 24-year-old tour rookie who was then known (if at all) for being the younger brother of Kentucky basketball legend Ralph Beard. He had earned $8,938 for the year, with his best finish a tie for fourth in Oklahoma City. On Monday morning, he shot 77. “I was getting ready to go to my car to leave when a golfer named Bud Holscher asked me what I shot,” Beard recalled recently. “When I told him 77, he said, ‘You better not leave.’ The wind picked up in the afternoon, and I ended up making the field.”
Beard surprisingly shot 68 in Thursday’s opening round to trail 1959 PGA Championship winner Bob Rosburg by one stroke. On Friday, another rookie, Raymond Floyd, along with one of Palmer’s good friends, Dow Finsterwald, were in the lead at 138, with Casper one back and Beard and Rosburg in a group at 140.
In Saturday’s third round, Beard shot 69 for a 54-hole total of 209, which tied him with Tommy Bolt, who fired a 67. Journeyman Jerry Steelsmith was one back at 210, with Rosburg at 211.
On Sunday, Beard played with Steelsmith and Rosburg. Bolt and Rosburg faded with 74s. When they arrived at the 18th tee, Beard held a two-shot lead over Steelsmith. The 18th hole had out-of-bounds on both sides. “Rosburg hadn’t said anything all day,” Beard remembered. “He came up to me and said, ‘Don’t fuck it up now. Hit an iron.’ I had been driving the ball good, but I hit an iron into the middle of the fairway.”
“I realized that this whole tournament was about Frank Sinatra and his friends, not the golfers. I asked for a car and was taken to my hotel. I had won $9,000, which doubled my money for the year and made me exempt for 1964.” – Frank Beard
Beard had a 160-yard shot to the hole, which he said in the normal course would have been a 6-iron. “Then, I remembered reading an article in Golf World by Doug Ford where he wrote that when you have a lot of adrenaline, hit one club less,” Beard recalled. “So, I hit 7-iron, 20 feet from the hole. I wasn’t the type to follow advice, but I did twice there. I two-putted for par. Steely birdied, so I won by one shot.” Beard had the first of his 11 tour wins.
At the awards ceremony, the whole Rat Pack was there – Sinatra, Davis, Martin and Joey Bishop – along with actress Jill St. John (the 47-year-old Sinatra’s 23-year-old girlfriend). “Jill St. John had her arm around my waist,” Beard said, “and I remember she had a medallion the size of four silver dollars between her breasts, and that was all I could think about.”
Afterwards, there was a concert. Beard was sitting by himself. “I realized that this whole tournament was about Frank Sinatra and his friends, not the golfers,” he said. “I asked for a car and was taken to my hotel. I had won $9,000, which doubled my money for the year and made me exempt for 1964.”
He walked across the street to a restaurant and had pancakes for dinner.
Beard figured it would be the last time he would hear from Sinatra. But a little more than four months later, in March 1964, Beard was stricken with a severe case of meningoencephalitis and was in a coma for three days. While he was at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Louisville, his mother, Pauline Beard, got a call at the family home.
“This is Frank Sinatra, and I was just calling to see how Frank is doing,” Beard said Sinatra told his mother. “I just found out about him, and send him my best wishes.” Several years later, after he was married, Beard was at a show in Las Vegas when Sinatra asked him to stand up and take a bow. He has no idea how Sinatra knew he was in the audience. “He said, ‘You got a request, what do you want me to sing?’ ” Beard requested “All the Way.” According to Beard, Sinatra replied, “We got that in the show, but I’m dedicating that to you right now, and when I sing, I’m going to be singing right to you and your wife.”
The Frank Sinatra Open Invitational turned out to be a one-off affair. “We had always heard Sinatra wanted to have another tournament,” said Beard, a longtime resident of Palm Desert. But in 1965 what previously was known as the Palm Springs Classic became the Bob Hope Desert Classic. The PGA of America decided the Coachella Valley could not support two tournaments and chose Hope over Sinatra.
However, a little more than three years later, Sinatra found himself at the epicenter of the feud between the PGA of America and the players, who by then were chafing at the PGA’s management of the tour. Palmer, Nicklaus, Player – all of whom were represented by Mark H. McCormack, founder of IMG – were making good money, but wanted more. Second- and third-tier players, many of whom were car-pooling to get to tournaments and sharing rooms in cheap motels, felt the golf boom was bypassing them.
Early in 1967, Sinatra announced he wanted another crack at a tournament in Palm Springs, and offered up a total purse of $175,000. In 1967, only the Westchester Classic ($250,000) and the Carling World Open ($175,000) had purses as big or bigger. The players’ committee voted to approve Sinatra. However, the PGA of America’s Executive Committee shot down Sinatra’s offer. “This was not in any way a slight of Sinatra,” PGA President Max Elbin said in May 1967. “We simply felt that a tournament in the same area so close to Bob Hope’s event would damage the Hope tournament.”
The players hit the roof. In 1967, the Hope tournament offered only half as much as Sinatra ($88,000) and required them to play 90 holes, 72 of them with amateurs in rounds that could be excruciatingly slow. Tour pros began to talk about breaking away. Veterans Gardner Dickinson, Bob Goalby, Lionel Hebert and Dan Sikes (who had a law degree) were the leaders of the movement. Beard, who graduated from the University of Florida in 1961 with an accounting degree, Nicklaus, and Kermit Zarley, a former University of Houston Cougar, also moved front and center as voices for the younger players.
“We’ve been playing for peanuts all these years,” Beard recalled, “and the board said, ‘Wait a minute. These guys work in pro shops. They don’t know anything about the tour. We should be running this business ourselves.’ The PGA was trying to run the tour business and had no idea how to do it. Especially with TV getting involved. Nobody on staff (knew anything about) how to deal with the TV people.”
On the Tuesday before the 1967 U.S. Open at Baltusrol, Arnold Palmer, Billy Casper and other stars attended a closed-door meeting with the PGA brass. About 130 of their fellow pros had signed a petition demanding the right to schedule their own tournaments, control television rights and hire tournament personnel. They threatened to boycott the PGA Championship in July if their demands were not met. The players decided to not follow through with the boycott, while making it clear the day of reckoning was only being delayed.
Fast forward a year. The PGA of America continued to insist on being in charge. Part of their stubbornness was a reaction to complaints by tour pros about the large number of club pros entering tournaments through Monday qualifying. “About 50-150 full-time tour players were being turned away every Monday,” Zarley wrote. “It didn’t seem fair that several club pros, most of whom had club jobs that they could depend on for their living, would take up spots (in Monday qualifiers).” For the most part, however, it simply was a matter of the PGA wanting to hold on to what was theirs. “The PGA stood up and said, ‘It’s been our tour all these years,’ ” Beard said. “Which, in a very loose manner, was correct.”
The PGA of America took false comfort in the loyalty of Snead (who, by then, was 56 years old) and a few others, as well as Palmer’s hesitancy to join the renegades. Eventually, Palmer, with Nicklaus’ urging, came on board. The new tour, called the Association of Professional Golfers, was chartered. Dickinson was named president. On November 30, 1968, Dickinson announced the APG had signed contracts for 28 tournaments in 1969, many of them at existing tour stops, with total purses exceeding $6 million ($1 million more than the tour’s 1968 total). First up on the 1969 APG schedule was the Los Angeles Open, long the PGA’s opener.
At the 1968 season-ending Cajun Classic, the APG posted a commitment list for the $100,000 Los Angeles Open. Beard was one of the first to sign up. Caught off guard, the PGA hurriedly scheduled a tournament the same week near San Jose but could offer only $50,000.
Seeing that it was beat, the PGA of America caved in a matter of days. A Tournament Players Division was created, which remained under the PGA of America umbrella, but the touring pros would call the shots. Having served its purpose, the APG went out of existence. USGA executive director Joe Dey was installed as the first commissioner of the new PGA Tour, which remains the tour as we know it today.
In 1975, the PGA Tour became totally independent of the PGA of America.
It was inevitable the players would want more control, but not that the PGA of America would almost completely recede from running top-flight golf tournaments (today, on the men’s side, it conducts only the PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup). Frank Sinatra’s role in hastening the process cannot be overstated. “Somebody (at the PGA) could have said, ‘Whoa, that’s another hundred thousand. We’ve got to get this on tour,’” Beard said, alluding to the approximate difference between Sinatra’s proposed tournament and the Hope Classic. Apparently, no thought was given to locating it outside of Palm Springs. The controversy underscored the PGA of America’s shortsightedness and inability to think outside the box, and ended its hegemony over the tour pros.
Frank Sinatra never again would have his own pro tournament, but today’s pros still owe him a debt of gratitude, just as they do to Frank Beard, one of the few surviving principals from the founding of the modern PGA Tour.
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