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From `King of Jazz' to King of Golf

EI Sid on Bing Crosby

By Robert Sidorsky

Up until he died last week after playing a round of golf in Spain with three Spanish professionals, Bing Crosby had been one of the game of golf's greatest benefactors. For 30 years he hosted and sponsored the gala California golf tournament known as the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am, which is affectionately referred to as "Bing's clambake."

It seems that Harry Lillis Crosby first became enamored of the game after he landed a role in the 1930 Paul Whiteman musical "The King of Jazz." During the filming, Crosby and some other musicians played a round at the Lakeside Golf Club in Los Angeles. Crosby became a life-long member of Lakeside and won. the club championship several times.

By the time of World War II, Crosby and his perennial sidekick Bob Hope were barnstorming the country on golf exhibitions with professionals such as Byron Nelson and Harold McSpaden. "Lord" Byron, the leading money-winner of 1945, and "Childe" Harold were then known as "The Gold Dust Twins." Crosby teamed up with woman professional and former Olympian Mildred "Babe" Didrickson in a series of War Bond exhibitions on the Coast. By the end of the war, over $600 million worth of War Bonds had been sold through golf tournaments and exhibitions.

Crosby became not only an avid but also a proficient golfer, as he whittled his handicap down to two. In 1940 he was a sectional qualifier for the U.S. Open and in 1950 he qualified to play in the British Amateur at St. Andrews. Playing before a huge gallery Crosby, whose home course then was the Bel-Air Country Club, began his first match in the Amateur by scoring threes on the first pair of holes.

Crosby patterned his rhythmical golf swing after that of his boyhood hero, MacDonald Smith, MacDonald was the youngest of a passel of five golfing brothers who emigrated en famille from Carnoustie, Scotland.

Despite an elegant and truly rhapsodical swing, MacDonald never won a major championship. He was "always the bridesmaid but never the bride." In the 1925 British Open he needed a final round of 78 to win, and staggered to an 82. In 1936 H.B. Martin wrote: "There is no more flagrant case of miscarried justice than in the story of MacDonald Smith, youngest of the Smith clan and the most brilliant...Dame Fate took a particular delight in mocking his genius, encouraging him with lesser prizes but always refusing his demand for stellar honors."

Prior to the war, golf was still largely the sport of Scottish emigres and well-to-do American dilettantes, but in 1947 Crosby inaugurated his tournament and thanks to the enormous popularity of its host, the event was instrumental in fostering the post-war golf boom. In 1971 over 24 million viewers watched the Crosby on T.V., the most ever for a golf telecast up to that point.

Even before sponsoring his illustrious Pro-Am, Crosby had hosted a tournament known as the Rancho Santa Fe Open as early as 1936. In 1937, his first year on the pro circuit, Sam Snead won the Rancho Santa Fe for his second tour victory. When someone showed "Slamming Sammy" a photograph of himself in the New York Times, he blurted, "How'd they ever get my picture? I ain't never been to New York."

Since its inception, the Crosby Pro-Am has always been played at Pebble Beach, perhaps the greatest course in the world, but the first two rounds are now played on two other courses on the Monterey Peninsula, Cypress Point and Spyglass.

Crosby was for many years a member of Cypress Point, which was designed by Alister Mackenzie, the same architect who mapped out Augusta National. Situated on a spit of land at the base of the Santa Lucia foothills and pounded by the Pacific on all sides, Cypress Point is perhaps the most breathtaking course ever built. O.B. Keeler, the biographer of Bobby Jones, wrote that the Monterey cypress that line the fairways appeared to him as "the crystallization of the dream of an artist who had been drinking gin and sobering up on absinthe."

The 16th hole at Cypress Point is considered the most dazzling in the world. It is a par three that requires a sheer carry of 233 yards over what Crosby termed "mollusk country" to a pocket handkerchief-sized green situated on a rocky palisade. As Jimmy Demaret once said, "There is no relief. The only place you can drop the ball over your shoulder is in Honolulu." Only two men have ever made a hole-in-one on the 16th at Cypress Point. One of them is Bing Crosby.

Peter Dobereiner, in recounting Crosby's exploit, wrote: "Stepping onto that tee, with the ocean crashing against the rocks below and the sea lions honking derision, the golfer is a tumult of emotions. Fear, awe, admiration and indecision fight for supremacy...Nowhere is he offered the chance of a richer prize or a more enormous failure. It is quite possible to stand on that tee and hit ball after ball into the Pacific and many a man has done so. On the other hand, Bing Crosby can look back and reflect that his life has not been in vain, even if he discounted all the triumphs of his career, simply on the grounds that he once made a hole-in-one there."

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