The tournament originated because Bing Crosby wanted to give his fellow members at Lakeside Golf Club in Los Angeles a chance to play with the 50 to 60 professional players that wintered on the west coast. Instead of Lakeside, he ended up conducting the first tournament in 1937 at Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club near his home in Southern California. Unfortunately, the weather was a big factor and the tournament was limited to 18 holes. The fun apparently began as a result of the rather “ducky” weather when bored golf pros began shooting ducks on the pond next to the 18th green. Once the ducks flew away, the pros started shooting at older brother Larry Crosby’s hat.
Although the website describes the tournament as four-parts professional golfers and one-part show business and sports celebrities, it has always seemed equally fun and serious competition to me. So many things have happened there – especially with the weather. I remember watching my first “Crosby” on television, perhaps it was the 1962 event, when flashy dresser Jimmy Demaret peered out the window in his room to see a blanket of snow on the ground. “I knew I got loaded last night, but how did I wind up at Squaw Valley,” he deadpanned.
I remember watching the tournament on television – probably that year. Snow was falling to the ground on the 18th fairway.Wind and rain has been a huge challenge at the Crosby/AT&T. In 1952 Cary Middlecoff told the Scottish-born pro at the time that the wind was blowing so strong that he couldn’t keep his ball on a tee. The pro, Peter Hay, replied, “Show me in the rule book where it says you have to tee up the ball. Now get back out there and play.” In 1962 after a particularly wet round, Johnny Weissmuller of Tarzan and Olympic swimming fame pronounced, “I’ve never been so wet in my life.”
Perhaps the guy that made Bill Murray’s shtick acceptable was entertainer and Crosby pal Phil Harris. Phil was known to combine his first vice, whiskey, with his second – golf. One year, he appeared on the first tee declaring he was the pro from “Jack Daniels Country Club.” Perhaps his fun began in 1951 when Harris dropped a 90-foot putt at the “dumbbell” shaped 17th and yelled over to Crosby, “How about that, Bing. Ain’t this a helluva blow to clean living?”‘ Perhaps my funniest personal memory was of Bryant Gumbel getting a “birdie” on the 17th as his tee shot brought down a seagull. The Today show crew ragged on him relentlessly the next week.
Even the broadcasters got into the act. Highly respected Olympic’s telecaster Jim McKay reported in 1969, “And now here’s Jack Lemmon, about to hit that all-important eighth shot.” Having CBS broadcast the last several events with Feherty and McCord just adds to the merriment.
There have been some very noteworthy winners, but of the professionals, Mark O’Meara is known to be the best at handling the courses, but mostly the format. He won in ’85, ’89, ’90, ’92 and ’97. Memorable celebrities that have won are Phil Harris, Kenny G, Andy Garcia, Kerry Packer, Jack Wagner, Dan Marino, George Brett, Frank Tatum and Dean Spanos. Everyone pulled for Lemmon to win – he played for many years and came close toward the end of his appearances, but never did pull it off. Also a sentimental favorite was Nathaniel Crosby who won the U.S. Amateur at 19 years old, but was never able to play well in the event his father founded. Bill Murray is probably the most iconic golf comedian to ever win the tournament, perhaps to ever even play in the event. His role in “Caddyshack” as Carl Spackler, greenskeeper, at the fictional Bushwood Country Club has cast him as a golf nut for the rest of his life.
As the tournament wound down at the 18th, Murray wasn’t playing his best, nonetheless, he found himself with a medium-length putt when he finally reached the green. As he lined it up, Bill morphed into Carl. His impromptu monologue went something like “This crowd has gone deadly silent, a Cinderella story outta nowhere. Former greenskeeper and now about to become the AT&T Pro-Am champion.”
Carl Spackler would have been proud.
Murray gets his name on a plaque of pro-am champions in the wall below the first tee at Pebble Beach – perhaps Bushwood would be apropos as well. By the way, the original Caddyshack was four-hours long. I can’t wait for TCM’s “Director’s Uncut Version”!
A golf architect in New Hampshire for over 20 years, Armstrong brought her craft to Las Cruces in January 2010. She is the founder of Armstrong Golf Architects, which provides planning, designing, permitting and construction monitoring services for golf course projects. You can comment on her writing and view past articles at her blog: https://roadholeshorts17.wordpress.com/.