Famous Last Words: The Life and Death of the Entertainer Behind The Pebble Beach Pro-Am
Did you know a “golfer who sings” is the unsung hero to thank for one of the game’s most fun traditions?
A perfect slice of golf majesty sits on the shores of the Monterey Peninsula, just a hundred miles south of San Francisco. Perhaps you know Pebble Beach primarily for its majors, with Tiger Woods’ runaway 2000 U.S. Open victory — and Dustin Johnson’s 2010 implosion — the most distinct in somewhat-recent memory. Or perhaps you know Pebble Beach from the bucket list golf trip you were putting together before the coronavirus reared its ugly head. Either way, while I can’t speak for the quality of play on your golf trip, Pebble Beach has more than just serious golf to offer.
The course is home to the Pebble Beach Pro-Am, or, as its title sponsor would likely prefer we say: The AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. For decades the game’s best have gathered in Carmel-by-the-Sea to pair up with some of the world’s most interesting amateurs. Watching the pros tee it up with Bill Murray, Aaron Rodgers, or Kelly Slater brings something to the game of golf that you just can’t quite get in any other sport. Celebrity basketball and celebrity softball, common at All-Star Games, just don’t come with the same kind of rapport with the fans.
Blue and pink gloves? Consider them some of Mr. Murray’s safer sartorial choices. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
This year the story of the Pebble Beach Pro-Am will take a brief interlude from celebrities and spectators due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So in absence of new lore, and whatever physical comedy Bill Murray still has up his sleeve, let’s take a look at the unexpected Christmastime crooner behind the tournament’s legend: a man known as “Bing.”
The story of the Pebble Beach Pro-Am begins in the snow. Well, maybe the holidays don’t always bring snow in places like Melbourne, Florida or Melbourne, Australia — but the creator of this now-famous annual tournament is synonymous with the holiday season.
Every year when the holidays come back around the calendar, the likes of Mariah Carey and Michael Bublé saturate radio stations all over North America, along with one classic singer whose music seems to defy the gravity of time: Bing Crosby.
Crosby is known for holiday hits like “White Christmas,” but the man was much more than a singer. He was an actor, a philanthropist, a world-class whistler, and — unbeknownst to most — a golf fanatic. As his crowning golf achievement, Bing parlayed a lifelong love of the game into his own tournament, which would eventually come to be today’s Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
While of course he chose the right career and did well for himself in show business, Crosby’s true passion was golf. A proud two-handicapper and participant in both the U.S. and British Amateurs, Bing was obsessed with the game.
After caddying as a youngster, Bing picked the game back up in 1930 — and he never put it back down. Along with his participation in national amateur tournaments, he was also a five-time club champion at his beloved Lakeside Golf Club in Hollywood, and one of only a few people in the world that could boast about an ace at Cypress Point’s famous 16th hole.
In 1937, at the height of his career, Bing took it upon himself to start the “Bing Crosby Clambake,” a charitable golf tournament that would bring together professionals and amateurs to play as teams. The first tournament was held at Rancho Santa Fe Country Club and the grand prize, partly put up by Bing himself, was won by none other than the incomparable golf legend Sam Sneed. After the final putt found the bottom of the cup, the participants then headed to the clubhouse for baked clams — and the name stuck. Ten years later, after World War II, Bing moved the tournament to its current home on the Monterey Peninsula.
Bing Crosby (left), Bob Hope, and the Sultan of Swat at an early Clambake.
The original characters of the Clambake were household names of the day: comedian Bob Hope, actor Jack Lemmon, baseball legend Babe Ruth, and a fellow singer by the name of Frank Sinatra.
Over the years the tournament has continued to feature some of the biggest celebrities and stars in the world, as well as some of the game’s greatest players. The logical place to start is with the aforementioned William Murray. A larger-than-life persona both off the course, Bill’s antics and on-course shenanigans in the Pro-Am are reason enough to tune into the coverage every year. From sharing beers with fans to criticizing his own play, and from the expressive outfits to winning the whole tournament in 2011, Bill Murray is an every-year fixture of the Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
Other entertainers and actors have walked the fairways during Bing’s Pro-Am as well. Justin Timberlake, a scratch golfer in his own right has teed it up. So has Alfonso Ribeiro (better known as Carlton from The Fresh Prince). Past tournaments have also included Clint Eastwood and Sean Connery. We’ve also seen our fair share of athletes swinging the stick as well. Aaron Rodgers, Tony Romo, the Manning brothers, and Kelly Slater headlined last year’s tournament. Previous years have seen Wayne Gretzky, Jerry Rice, Ken Griffey, Jr., and Julius Erving.
The Pro-Am has also been at the forefront of expanding the game for women as well, starting with future LPGA stand-out Nancy Lopez and California Women’s Champion Marianne Bretton in 1977. Since then, the tournament has routinely brought female notables into the fold at the Pro-Am, including former Secretary of State and Augusta member Condoleezza Rice and two-time Olympic softball gold medalist Lisa Fernandez.
A rare photo of Frank Sinatra double-bagging for Bing Crosby and Bob Hope.
It was all made possible by none other than Bing Crosby. The man’s life in golf was nothing short of magical. A man who had a dream of beginning a small tournament for his buddies eventually turned that dream into one of the most celebrated and beloved golf tournaments in the history of the game. As a two-handicap and amateur competitor all over the world, Bing certainly loved the game — right up until the moment he passed away playing it.
In October of 1977, at the age of 73, Bing was in Spain, playing a round with some friends at Golf La Moraleja in Madrid, Spain. After sinking what would be his last putt and walking off the 18th green, Crosby suffered a heart attack and passed away before friends could get him to a hospital. It’s rumored that his last words before passing were “That was a great round of golf, fellas.” Upon learning of the passing of her husband, Bing’s wife Kathryn said “I can’t think of any better way for a golfer who sings for a living to finish the round.”
“That was a great round of golf, fellas.”
BING CROSBY’S REPORTED LAST WORDS, 1977
A year after his passing, Bing was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, cementing an already impressive life within the game. While this year’s edition of the Pro-Am will not be played with amateurs due to COVID-19 concerns, and we all will miss watching Bill Murray play golf, we can wait patiently for next year. Soon we will once again be able to watch some of our favorite professionals play with actors, athletes, and celebrities alike.
It’s all thanks to a wonderful golfer who happened to sing for a living: Bing Crosby. Here’s to a great round, and a wonderful life, of golf.