One of the most indelible images in the history of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am came three decades ago on the 16th hole at Cypress Point. The beloved actor Jack Lemmon laid-up with his tee shot on the long, dangerous par-3 and then hit a weak approach that skipped right off the green, into the ice plant.
In a recent interview, Lemmon’s longtime playing partner, Peter Jacobsen, picked up the tale: “Jack’s ball is a foot from the edge of a cliff. I’m talking about 70 feet straight down to the water. There’s no way he can even try to hit it—that ice plant is slippery! Clint Eastwood is playing in our group and he comes over and gives it his best Dirty Harry squint and says, ‘C’mon, Jack, hit that sonofabitch! I’ll help.’ He gets behind Lemmon and grabs his belt. I’m watching this thinking, Holy cow, two icons of American cinema are about to fall to their death. I gotta do something! So I rush over and grab Clint by his belt. Well, [Eastwood’s partner] Greg Norman wants to be part of the fun so he grabs my belt. Then Greg’s belt gets grabbed by his caddie, Pete Bender. The crowd is going nuts. The cameras are everywhere. It’s a great scene. Jack, amazingly, gets the ball out of the ice plant back into the fairway. It’s a heck-uva shot. But here’s the kicker. His next shot, he shanks straight into the ocean. He got what he deserved!”
It was the perfect Pro-Am moment: Celebrity, golf royalty, good humor and the pounding Pacific all alchemizing into something magical. Lemmon died years ago, Cypress Point has been replaced in the tournament rotation by the Shore Course of Monterey Peninsula Country Club, and Norman is mostly retired, but the essence of that giddy shot from the ice plant lives on. It is not the pros who make the Pro- Am so unique, it is the celebrated amateurs.
Ollie Nutt, the chairman of the Monterey Peninsula Golf Foundation, says that in surveys, fan interest is split 50-50 between the real golfers and Hollywood interlopers. Jacobsen thinks that’s generous.
“This tournament never has and never will be about the pro golfers,” he says. “Our galleries were there to cheer for Jack Lemmon, and I was okay with that. When I hit a good shot, they clapped, too.”
The fun always begins on Wednesday of tournament week, with a celebrity shootout that benefits area charities. (One year Bill Murray donated his $12,500 winnings to the cashstarved Salinas libraries.)
Presiding as master of ceremonies is local media personality Bob Murphy. With his microphone he sprays one-liners like shrapnel. “Kevin James, ladies and gentlemen!” Murphy crowed one year, introducing the rotund TV star. “He’s playing out of Jenny Craig Country Club. Gotta love those expandos!”
When diminutive but long-hitting actor Chris O’Donnell chose a 3-iron for his tee shot on the first hole, Murphy told the crowd, “Chris is used to playing that golf course with the windmill, folks.” Pebble Beach resident George Lopez was not spared, either. When he popped-up his drive, Murphy yelled, “Infield fly rule!”
This vibe carries over into the tournament proper. Murray has long been the “Pied Piper of Pebble Beach” according to Sports Illustrated’s Gary Van Sickle, who wrote in 2003, “It is time to acknowledge what has become stupefyingly obvious: The tournament that used to be called the Crosby, after the great crooner Bing, has become, for all practical purposes, the Murray, after the man who last Friday gave a scalp massage to a female spectator on the 15th tee and hit the Pebble Beach sign above the golf shop with a well-flung banana.” Murray is so beloved because beneath his sardonic patter is a soft heart. In 2006, the Monterey County Herald told the story of Jennifer Hill. In ’05 Hill had met Murray during the tournament week, and when she became bedridden with a serious illness, he surprised her by showing up at the hospital for a morale-boosting visit.
The next year Hill was in Murray’s gallery, and after presenting him with a bouquet of flowers, they talked for 10 minutes. “He’s just a wonderful person,” Hill said. In the last few years, as his acting career has become increasingly celebrated, Murray has missed a few Pro-Ams and Lopez has ably stepped into the role of wisecracking cutup. He has a homefield advantage as a part-time resident; his house sits just above Pebble Beach Golf Links’ 15th tee. But while Murray affects a pose of utter indifference to the golf being played, Lopez captivates the crowds with how hard he is trying on every shot. He has been candid that golf is a form of therapy for him, and his annual appearances at the Pro-Am have a deep meaning for Lopez.
This was crystallized in one shot in 2007, when he was playing the par-5 12th hole at Poppy Hills. “I was on this run of natural and net birdies,” Lopez told Golf Digest. “I hit my second shot into the woods, but against my caddie’s advice, I decided to try to hit a pitching wedge over the trees. I caught it a little fat, but it got over, and when it hit the front edge of the green, it released.
“All I could see was the top of the flag, but as the ball kept rolling there was this crescendo from the gallery that exploded when it just missed the hole. I ran out of the trees with my arms up. When I pulled them down, I had to wipe my eyes because I was crying. It hit me because that experience of people cheering, of succeeding, see, I never felt anything like that as a kid, and part of me is still starved for that. I was never encouraged or congratulated by anybody or included in anything. I didn’t come from a home where people asked, ‘Did you have a good day?’ or cared what I was doing or what I wanted to be. I fill some of that void with the laughs and adulation from doing comedy. But believe it or not, golf has fed me even more.”
Other celeb mainstays include actors Andy Garcia and Kevin Costner. Garcia made an audacious debut in 1997 with a magical nine holes at Poppy Hills, during which he made three natural birdies, shot a 36, and contributed nine strokes to what would be a tournament record Pro-Am score of 43 under. Pretty good for a guy who was playing as an 18-handicapper. In the years since, Garcia has been reduced to a 10 and never sniffed another chance at victory.
Costner plays with the ease of a natural jock and cuts a dashing figure in natty throwback clothing that evokes a Golden Age glamour. “He means so much to the tournament,” says Jacobsen. “He’s an Academy Award winner, he’s “Tin Cup”—to have him come out year after year after year sends the message that this is an important event. And the fans love Costner—he never stops signing autographs and posing for pictures. At night he’s in the Tap Room just hanging out. He’s an example of a guy who just gets it. This tournament is supposed to be fun, and for the fans, a lot of the joy is getting to know the celebs. They really are the heart and soul of this event.”
The 2011 AT&T National Pro-Am is February 7-13. For more information, go towww.attpbgolf.com or call 831/649-1533.