Thousands of photos have been captured since Hollywood superstar Bing Crosby brought his Pro-Am Tournament to Pebble Beach in 1947. Many capture the drama and intensity of a high stakes professional golf tournament. But there’s another common element: smiles. Lots of smiles. That’s because humor has forever been the heart and soul of what is now known as the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Of course, Bing invited Bob Hope, his co-star in the “Road to” movies and fellow golf aficionado, beginning a tradition of including comedians in the amateur field that continues today.
“Comedy has always been a big part of the Pro-Am,” says Tournament Director and Monterey Peninsula Foundation (MPF) CEO Steve John. “That probably started at Rancho Santa Fe, where Bing held his tourney before moving it to Pebble Beach.” He adds that a little lightheartedness is essential to the game. “Golfers need comedy. Golf is so frustrating, you need humor. You have to allow yourself to laugh at your game, otherwise you quit. It goes with the territory.”
The AT&T is also, however, a serious PGA tournament. A win here is a major feather in any pro’s tam. And it’s a huge win for the Monterey Peninsula charities that have benefited from revenues generated for their operations from the very beginning. “After the 2022 tournament,
we will pass the $200 million milestone in charitable giving,” John says. “I firmly believe that it’s because of the entertainers who participate, and especially the two thousand-plus volunteers who give a week of their time—many give up their vacations—to run the tournament.”
During Bing’s reign, volunteers were treated to dinner and a show, then called “The Clambake.” These days, this huge group is feted with the Volunteer Variety Show, held during tournament week. “We typically have 25-30 celebrities entertaining, all of whom donate their time,” John says. Longtime participant and MPF Board Chair Clint Eastwood is adamant that this group knows how much they are appreciated. “Clint says we need to take care of them in a unique way,” John adds. “He often gets onstage to sing to everyone’s delight.”
These days, the comedian most identified with the tournament is without question Bill Murray. His antics are legendary, both on and off the courses. He’s been known to approach a spectator and take a sip from their beverage. “Bill and Larry the Cable Guy come into town on Monday, sometimes Sunday,” says John. “They’ll pop up at different nonprofits like the Boys and Girls Clubs or Carmel Youth Center to entertain the kids or just say ‘Hi.'” In the Bing era, entertainer Phil Harris filled that role. “Phil had a lot to do with the lively spirit of the tournament,” says CBS Sports broadcaster Jim Nantz. “If Bing were around, he’d say Bill brings that same kind of humor and good will, silliness and laughter. I admire him so much. He’s been vital in the modern era. Bill always looks like he’s having fun. He makes it look easy, but it’s not. His mind is always churning.” During the AT&T, a celebrity like Murray will usually play almost five dozen holes. “By Saturday, he’s played 54 holes and he’s done 54 unique routines,” Nantz says. “He makes them up on the fly. It’s extemporaneous, fluid, reactionary. It’s pure genius.”
“I think Bill is the only one with a guaranteed lifetime invitation,” says Ray Romano.
Several comedians who’ve played the AT&T many times— Romano, Tom Dreesen, Gary Mule Deer and Larry the Cable Guy—took time to share their thoughts about the tournament with Carmel Magazine, as did Nantz.
Tom Dreesen: “Playing Pebble…what can I say? It’s hallowed ground. There are certain things I consider highlights in my 50-year career and playing the AT&T and performing at the volunteer show are right at the top. I remember being in a corner tavern with some buddies, watching the AT&T on TV. I thought at the time that it would be fun to be a caddie there. Playing in it is phenomenal, a dream come true.”
Gary Mule Deer: “It’s one of my favorite things to do. I met Clint Eastwood and he got me involved, I think for the first time in 1994. Two years ago, I was the oldest player—I’m one year older than Bugs Bunny and two years younger than Porky Pig.
“One year the weather was so bad, we all went to the player’s tent. Clint said, ‘in the old days Bing would’ve asked someone get up and entertain.’ I did about 20 minutes. It was a blast.
“It doesn’t get any better than this. It’s the crème de la crème, as good as it gets. I just hope I get to see Clint this year and play the tournament and entertain for the gallery and volunteers again.”
Ray Romano: “The AT&T is the highlight of the year for me and my lifelong buddy and caddie Claude Choo.
“It’s like Christmas morning every day, and I can’t sleep the night before. I feel like I’m waiting for Santa to come. When I go to bed, if I fall asleep at midnight, with my eyes open, I pray that it’s at least 4:00 a.m. because I know I’m not getting back to sleep. I only get three or four hours the whole time I’m there. It takes me three or four days to recover.”
Larry the Cable Guy: “The first year I was invited I knew how iconic the tournament was and I wanted to make sure I didn’t disrespect it. So, I asked if it was OK to wear my sleeveless shirt. They told me ‘Yes! Do what you do.’
“When you first walk in and realize all those who’ve played the tournament, you realize you’re part of an amazing legacy.
“But at the end of the day, it’s about raising money, and having a great time with the crowd. That’s why I always play better in practice than in tournament play because my priority is to entertain.”
Jim Nantz: “The first year I called the tournament was 1986. I got to work with the original comedian behind the Clambake, Bing’s very dear friend Phil Harris. He worked the broadcast and sat in the booth with us for years, into his late eighties or early nineties. Phil always told a story about Bing. He was a life-of-the-party kind of guy, and he had a lot to do with creating the lively spirit of the Crosby that lives today in the AT&T.
“Everything that came out of Phil’s mouth was gold. He won the amateur part of the 1951 Pro-Am. It was a putt on the 17th green that cinched it. When a reporter asked him how long it was, Phil answered, “I don’t know, but I wish I had that much property on Wilshire Boulevard!’
“In those days, the Crosby had a reputation as an event at which the celebrities tended to imbibe quite a bit. Part of Phil’s image—though it wasn’t entirely true—was that he drank a bit, and he played that act to the hilt. One story he told on air was that after a late night at [bygone Pebble Beach Lodge restaurant] Club XIX he returned to his room, ruing how much he had consumed. He opened the Gideon Bible for solace. ‘There was a note in the Bible that said to call this number if you have a drinking problem.’ Phil said. ‘So, I called it. It was a Carmel liquor store.”‘
For many celebrity golfers, an invitation to the Pebble Beach AT&T Pro-Am is akin to getting an Academy Award, an Emmy and a Tony all rolled into one.
Romano: “When “Everybody Loves Ray-mond” was on CBS—maybe it was season 3—I got a call from [then CBS CEO] Les Moonves, I knew that I had arrived as a golfer.
“I have to be honest—and this is gonna sound like bull—but two of the goals I set for myself when I started in stand-up was to host SNL and to play in the AT&T Pro-Am…I didn’t care if it was as a pro or an amateur. Made both. I hosted SNL the year after my first year at Pebble.”
Larry: “When you get it, you’re really wowed, and I’ve been wowed seven years in a row.
“They were looking for new people who were good with a crowd and were fun. My friend, “hick-hop” singer and former pro golfer, Colt Ford told someone I would be a good fit. They saw me play in a tournament at Lake Tahoe and saw that I was having a blast, always messing with the crowds. That’s how I got invited.
“I’m so blessed to be able to play such an iconic event. When you get the Pebble invitation, you think, ‘Oh man, this is so cool.’ You just want to get invited back again it’s so much fun.”
Romano: “I never realized the competitiveness that exists for amateurs to make the cut. I didn’t realize how strong the draw was. I thought it was just for fun.
“What’s it like to make the cut for Sunday, when the pros are playing an actual tournament? It’s like standing in center field during a real Yankees game. I’ve made it three times in 20 years—it took me 11 years to do it the first time—and it’s still the same thrill.
“People have asked me if I might have made it earlier or more often if I used a pro caddie instead of Claude, my lifelong buddy and partner on this journey. I always reply, ‘I don’t know, maybe. But it wouldn’t have meant so much to me.'”
Nantz: “Jack Lemmon started coming around 1966. He was always on the quest to make the cut, and sadly never did.
“Jack missed one year because he was filming “Grumpier Old Men.” That crushed him because he always cleared his schedule for the tournament. Pro Peter Jacobson always held Lemmon’s hand and his goal was to get Jack to the finish line, make the cut and get to play Sunday. That one year he missed, Peter won the professional tournament with a different partner. Would Jack have made the cut that year? It’s highly likely.”
Mule Deer: “I started playing when I was 47. I needed a new addiction, so I took up golf. When other guys hit, you hear things from the gallery like ‘nice hit.’ When I hit, you hear ‘That’ll work,’ ‘That won’t hurt ya,’ sometimes, ‘I didn’t hear any branches.'”
Romano: “I started playing in my teen years…on a pitch and putt, then went to a big course. Didn’t take a lesson until I was about 30. My lowest handicap has been eleven. My lifelong goal has been to break 80. I play the blue tees. Anyone who plays with me knows I’m the most anal about rules. I’m annoying to play with.
“Once while playing with Tom Dreesen, I was a three-foot putt away from 79. He got on the PA and announced. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Ray is going for 79.’ I missed it. He’s been guilt ridden ever since.”
Larry: “I used to dislike golf. I kept getting invited to charity events, but didn’t play, so I’d just drive around and goof with people…then I took a few shots and decided it was kind of fun. Once you play and get a couple of good shots you’re absolutely hooked. I fell in love with the game and fell in love with the courses. It’s a good sport for challenging yourself.”
Dreesen: “I’ve emceed the volunteer party every year. That’s the most fun of all. The joy of playing the tournament is great, but the joy of performing is greater. Every hole, a volunteer comes up to me and thanks me for making them laugh.
“Me and Ray, Larry the Cable Guy, Gary Mule Deer, Bill Murray, people like that perform, plus four or five musicians like Michael Bolton, Toby Keith, Darius Rucker and Kenny G. We carry on the tradition of the Clambake. Volunteers and their spouses get a show that would be a $1000 ticket in Vegas.”
Mule Deer: “The volunteer show is fantastic. We love doing that show for them.”
Larry: “No one wants to follow Gary Mule Deer…we know he’s a legend and we all love him, but he kills it in those shows.
“I was nervous my first year, because I heard that Clint usually attends. I wanted him to see my act so bad!
“I went on, did a great show. Walking offstage I saw Clint walking. He gave me that “Outlaw Josie Wales” look and said, ‘Hey. Cable Guy. Funny stuff. You’re a welcome addition.’ Wow. That made my day, I’ll tell you what.”