Larry Bohannan and Shad Powers break down the ins and outs of 2019’s Desert Classic.
Richard Lui, Palm Springs Desert Sun
The traditional gift for a 60th anniversary is a diamond, so there should be plenty of glitter at this year’s Desert Classic.
Yes, the name has changed, and the courses certainly have changed and even the format that was used for more than five decades has been tweaked and massaged in recent years. But this year marks the 60th playing of the tournament that began in 1960 as the Palm Springs Golf Classic.
In these days of rotating title sponsors and old tournaments disappearing and new tournaments popping up a thousand miles away, 60 years for the Desert Classic in the Coachella Valley should be celebrated. Few tournaments have survived six decades on the tour, with a few notable exceptions like the major championships.
The six decades have been full of remarkable highlights, great players, great winners, great personalities and great individual moments. And while there are those who would complain that the tournament isn’t really the same event it was 40 or 50 years ago, the truth is few events stay the same over that period of time. So much of what older fans miss about the tournament could never be re-created now, even if tournament officials wanted to.
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So in a diamond celebration year, and as the event begins a Desert Classic Hall of Fame this year, let’s spotlight six of the best things about the tournament through the years, even if those things are gone now:
For all the celebrities who had their names attached to PGA Tour events starting in the 1930s, it was Hope who perhaps perfected the art of the celebrity host. Bing Crosby liked celebrities, but he wanted celebrities who could play the game well. Hope wanted celebrities who could entertain the gallery and the television audience, and he wanted pros who would interact with the celebrities. Through the years Hope brought astronauts and one-time pop culture phenoms and people who couldn’t actually play the game to at least try to play the game in his event. He had Phyllis Diller and Granny from “The Beverly Hillbillies” as his caddie. He had the three Hope Girls, perhaps something that wouldn’t fly in the 2010s, walking the course with featured groups. It was golf as an entertainment extravaganza, and Hope was the quintessential ring leader.
Arnold Palmer and Bob Hope (Photo: Desert Sun file photo)
Want to start a new tournament? How about having the best and most popular player in the world win the event two of the first three years? That’s what Palmer did, winning the Palm Springs Golf Classic twice before Hope’s name was even on the tournament. Palmer went on to win the tournament in 1968, 1971 and 1973, becoming as big a fixture at the event as Hope.
Okay, celebrities aren’t what they used to be, and neither is celebrity golf. But for years in the desert, one of the big days was the announcement of which celebrities would play in the “Hope.” From movie stars to singers to comedians to football coaches to television stars to athletes, if you were a well-known personality and could play golf even a little bit, you had a chance to get an invitation. Television ate up the celebrities, including former Presidents Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton, and Hope loved the fun of it all.
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There are people in Southern California in general and the Coachella Valley specifically who will tell you the reason that so many people have moved to California or spend at least the winters in the state are the Rose Bowl and the old Bob Hope tournament. Blue skies, green grass and warm temperatures are enough to get people watching in Minnesota and British Columbia to pack their bags and head for the desert if they can dig their way out of the snow. The desert’s PGA Tour event has lost just three days of weather in 59 years.
Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and Pres. Eisenhower at Eisenhower Medical Center. (Photo: Palm Springs Historical Society/Special to the Desert Sun)
Okay, truth be told, there are professionals who would rather have pro-ams before the tournament, not have amateurs playing side-by-side with them when the pro’s score actually counts for something. But the pro-am is at the very heart of the tournament, being one of the main reasons the 1960 event used four golf courses and had just 128 pros. Three amateurs with one pro was the norm for the tournament from 1960 to 2011. Since them, it’s been two pros and two amateurs in each foursome. It’s a unique format that has made the tournament stand out for decades.
A lot of people point out that the tournament’s winners in recent years have more likely been first-time winners than Hall of Famers. Fair enough, but the history of the event is built on great winners. Jack Nicklaus won the event, and Billy Casper won it twice. Johnny Miller was a two-time winner, and so was John Cook and Corey Pavin. Phil Mickelson pumped some life into the tournament with wins in 2002 and 2004, and he’s still playing in the tournament today looking for a third win that would be surpassed only by Palmer’s five victories.
So times have changed over the last 60 years, and so has the desert’s golf tournament. Bob Hope is gone, and so is his name. Palmer and Ford are no longer around, and celebrities have disappeared from the event. And yes, the tournament is looking for another title sponsor, what will be the third sponsor in less than a decade.
But the tournament is still here, and its basic structure hasn’t changed all that much. And with just the right new sponsor for the years to come, maybe there is another 60 years for the tournament to run.
Larry Bohannan is The Desert Sun golf writer. He can be reached at (760) 778-4633 or email@example.com. Follow him on Facebook or on Twitter at @Larry_Bohannan.