PEBBLE BEACH — It is a week as much for nostalgia as for sport, a time to walk the fairways of the present and wake up echoes of the past, to watch Tiger Woods and Bill Murray and remember Arnold Palmer and Dean Martin.
Old ballparks come down, old athletes pass on. But the golf tournament Bing Crosby started in the late 1930s that became the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am in the 1980s continues on, tugging us backward as it pulls us forward.
Now the celebrities include Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, musician Kenny G, comedian George Lopez and actor Andy Garcia, and if we are not quite as awed by their appearances as we were years earlier by Bob Hope, James Garner and Phil Harris, perhaps it is because television has made them almost too much a part of our lives.
The pro purse this year is $6.4 million, with $1.152 million to the winner, hardly abnormal on the PGA Tour in the 21st century. The pros themselves have become wealthy and stars in their own right. It wasn’t always that way.
Back in the 1930s, the depression years, the pros played for a few hundred dollars. They were hardly more than glorified caddies. And when Bing, an inveterate golfer good enough to compete in the U.S. Amateur, invited the pros, men such as Sam Snead, Ben Hogan and Porky Oliver, to join his movie and radio pals in a tournament, they were appreciative.
They might miss a putt, but nobody missed an opportunity to laugh. Golf and guffaws, in a matter of speaking, which was Bing’s idea. Entertainment and employment, and make sure the gallery was not excluded.
So it continues. The Birdies for Charity Shootout on Tuesday with 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and QB Alex Smith, the Giants’ Matt Cain and Will Clark, and other reps from both San Francisco teams. Then the Celebrity Challenge on Wednesday, featuring Murray, Huey Lewis and Darius Rucker, represented in spirit what Crosby sought.
At times in February on the Monterey Peninsula, the weather is the tale, but for the next few days, the forecast is as exciting as the show promises to be. Tiger and Phil, Murray and Lewis, and, not to be ignored, scenery that the late Australian painter Francis McComas — not Robert Louis Stevenson — properly labeled “The greatest meeting of land and water in the world.”
It was the auto mogul Henry Ford who said “History is bunk,” but not at the AT&T. History is the guideline, the reference, the proof that now as 75 years ago the tournament started by Crosby retains its values and its enjoyment.
Davis Love III, for one, would never miss it. Love, this year’s Ryder Cup captain, said there’s nothing like playing Pebble Beach, where golfers sometimes tend to gaze at the surf rolling in on Carmel Bay and almost forget to concentrate on the shot at hand.
The AT&T is competition, camaraderie and sheer joy. There may be too many spectators with cameras — Tiger doesn’t like that — but it goes with the territory, and what spectacular territory it is.
It isn’t heaven, was a slogan heard often, but it’s the next best thing; and for most of us, probably more accessible.
Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on www.artspander.com and www.realclearsports.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.