Bing’s Gathering of Friends

The silver harvest of Monterey was in danger. Sardines had been a source of prosperity even during the depression of the 1930’s. In the World War II years that followed, Monterey’s output of inexpensive canned protein was prodigious. Now, in 1947, it seemed as though the fish were fewer and growing more so.

Edward F. (“Doc”) Ricketts, an environmentalist ahead of his time, had done an exhaustive statistical study of the ebbs & flows of the sardine population. His charts and graphs and extensive knowledge and experience led to his conclusion that the population would explode in 1948.

He also warned against over fishing the forthcoming bumper crop.

Ricketts saw potential economic danger lurking in “The Sardine Capital of the World.” He said that if these fish were caught in the midst of this breeding cycle – there would be no more sardines for many years. Disbelief and the lure of money was too great. The silver harvest wound up in cans and the era was over.

During the decline that preceded this final boom, local businessmen and civic leaders were already casting about for ideas on what to do in the increasingly likely event that a new kind of “fish” was needed to float the local economy.

Tourism was not a new idea. The Monterey Peninsula had been a playground for the rich and famous since the post gold rush days. The famous Pebble Beach golf course had hosted the 1929 U.S. Amateur Golf Championship – the first USGA championship on the west coast.

The Peninsula, in fact, had a quite respectable history with regard to the game of golf. Old Del Monte was the oldest course west of the Mississippi. Cypress Point was one of the more exclusive (and beautiful) courses in the world. Monterey Peninsula Country Club had two golf courses.

Thoughts and ideas turned to golf – and to Ted Durein. Not that the young Sports Editor was a great golfer. He wasn’t! He was, however, becoming caught up in an idea. He was also becoming a pragmatic civic leader – a trait that would help to prepare him for his eventual job as Executive Managing Editor of the Monterey Peninsula Herald.

The task fell to Ted: Create a big name golf tournament – to draw tourists! Easier said than done! The PGA (Professional Golfers Association) was now requiring a pretty high guaranteed purse – $5000. Local businessmen thought that was an awful lot of money. Ted recalled walking up and down Alvarado Street in downtown Monterey. “I couldn’t raise a bean,” he said!

Then someone in Pacific Grove recalled that, before the war, Bing Crosby held an annual event down at Rancho Santa Fe near San Diego. People who played in it were Bing’s friends primarily from the worlds of Golf, Business, and Entertainment. It was a gathering of friends – known as “The Clambake” because that’s exactly what they did on the beach for the tournament dinner.

Bing was not a stranger to the Monterey Peninsula. He owned land in Pebble Beach and was a member at Cypress Point. Maybe – just possibly – this increasingly legendary entertainer would entertain the idea of reviving his tournament and moving it to the Monterey Peninsula.

And so, Ted sat down and wrote a letter to Bing. He said, “…it started something like: Dear Mister Crosby, You don’t know me- but…” The result was a golf tournament and a 30 year friendship until Bing’s death in 1977.

When Bing got involved, he got actively involved. Just as plans got underway, the PGA raised its purse requirement to $10,000. Bing agreed to guarantee it. He continued to guarantee the purse every year. Even as the purse increased to hundreds of thousands, Bing guaranteed it – rain or shine.

And rain was always a threat. It became legendary. Even today, rain is referred to as “Crosby Weather.” I once asked Bing why he continued to hold his tournament during the dead of winter. His reply was: “To give the saloon keepers a shot in the arm during the down season.” That joking response, nevertheless, harkened back to the initial the reason for the tournament: To stimulate the local economy.

In addition to providing the financial guarantee, Bing had some significant innovations. One being that this was the first tournament to be held over three golf courses. Originally, they were Pebble Beach, Monterey Peninsula Country Club dunes course, and Cypress Point. The latter was, in itself, a significant achievement. To say that Cypress Point was a conservative and VERY private and closed group is to vastly understate.

Bob Hope, another member of Cypress Point, once commented about the exclusivity of his fellow club members. At a Golf Writers dinner, Hope said, “They had a membership drive at Cypress Point recently – DROVE OUT 40 members!” But member Bing got them to let his tournament in.

His tournament was billed as the National Pro-Am. Bing selected every player and issued every invitation. And, invitations were actively sought and hoped and prayed for. Bing insisted that the amateurs would play the entire tournament, including the final day if they made the cut. It was a revolutionary and controversial concept. (the PGA did not like playing spots going to Amateurs – even if they were bigger draws and more fun than the Pros.) The format continues to this day.

“The Clambake” was indeed a Gathering of Friends. Those friends created some fabulous moments. Like the time Phil Harris (Jack Benny’s comedic & hard drinking band leader) sank a 40 foot putt to win the Pro-Am. The legendary lush immediately exclaimed: “Now ain’t that one hell of a blow for clean living!”

Jack Lemmon started trying to make the cut in 19__ (any date will do). Arnold Palmer once took so many shots to get off the rocks at Pebble Beach that Club XIX served up a new drink that night: “Palmer on the Rocks.” Everyone loved “Champaign Tony Lema” when he won it. Jack Nicklaus won two in a row in 1972 & 73 – and the U.S Open at Pebble Beach during the summer in between. Five years before he beat Nicklaus for the 1982 U.S. Open title at Pebble Beach, young Tom Watson bounded into the press room Sunday evening, sat down, looked up, grinned real big and said: “Hot damn, I just won the Crosby!” This, after all, was the grandest event in all of golf.

It took thousands and thousands of volunteer hours to put on the increasingly huge event that became the most popular golf tournament in the world. Bing paid the volunteers by gathering up a bunch of his fellow entertainers and putting a big dinner and show – called (of course) “The Clambake.” It was the hottest ticket in town and it was free – for those who had donated their time to the tournament. They were accorded unforgettable memories, courtesy of their pal – Bing!

The beneficiary of the Tournament was the Bing Crosby Youth Fund. Bing was extremely proud of its success in providing so many needed things for young people – from Little League equipment to College Scholarships. His widow and both sons confirm that – of all the considerable things he did in his life – the thing Bing was more proud of than anything else was the Bing Crosby Youth Fund.

After Bing died in 1977, his son Nathaniel became the Tournament Sponsor. “Nate,” an avid golfer (winner of the 1981 United States Amateur), continued the tournament chores he had seen his father do. He had a lot of help from folks who loved his dad and were dedicated to the tournament.

After several years, it became apparent that mushrooming purses and huge potential amounts of money for the Youth Fund and additional charities were dictating a change. AT&T was asked to join as the corporate sponsor. Bing’s widow Kathryn did not like the idea.

Over the objections of both of her sons (Nathaniel and Harry, who still play in the tournament and sit on the Board of Directors), Kathryn Crosby refused to allow Bing’s name to continue with the tournament – which is now known as The AT&T-Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

However, for all of the golfers who coveted the prized invitation to play, and all of the fans who had so much fun, and all of the volunteers who gave up their vacations to work countless hours for free – it is still “The Crosby” – still The Gathering of Friends!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email