Bob Hope is not the greatest golfer who has ever played the game, but he might be the most enthusiastic. Since the 1920s he has been one of the sport’s great ambassadors. As he traversed the globe entertaining both black-tie audiences and battalions of scruffy soldiers, Hope made a second career of teeing it up with Presidents, Princes and the King-in fact he teamed with Arnold Palmer to win the pro-am portion of the Palm Springs Desert Classic in 1962. Three years later Hope took the reigns of that tournament and it has borne his name ever since. As the host of this sprawling party Hope has been a constant reminder that golf is meant to be enjoyed, his own glib observations notwithstanding.
"It's wonderful how you can start out with three strangers in the morning, play 18 holes and by the time the day is over you have three solid enemies."
“It’s wonderful how you can start out with three strangers in the morning, play 18 holes and by the time the day is over you have three solid enemies,” Hope once said. Of course, he has made few enemies on the golf course, in no small part because of his contagious zest for the game. Even though his mansion in Studio City, Calif., was only eight blocks from Lakeside Country Club-which was also home to another of golf’s patron saints, Bing Crosby-Hope installed his own kidney- shaped green guarded by a pair of bunkers, with three different sets of tees. Back in the old days it was common for houseguests to repair to the back terrace for cocktails and wedges (another set of tees was 140 yards out and mandated a carry over the swimming pool).
Hope was welcome in almost any foursome. He was a frequent foil for President Eisenhower and a close friend of Ben Hogan, and they supplied many of the countless anecdotes in his ode to the game, Confessions of a Hooker. Though he has always liked to poor-mouth his abilities, Hope could actually play a little. He was a four handicap “for about 20 minutes” in his youth, and even teed it up at the 1951 British Amateur at Royal Porthcawl.
If the Bob Hope Desert Classic lacked the celestial field of the Crosby Clambake, it more than made up for it with perfect weather and the enveloping presence of Hope, a peerless master of ceremonies. Along with his sometimes caddie Phyllis Diller, who usually toted Band-Aids and a hip flask to mitigate any potential disaster, Hope oversaw a pro-am that was at least as much about the ams as the pros. Played on four courses over five days to accommodate the biggest possible field, the Hope Classic remains a tribute to all golfers, from the sublime to the ridiculous. Until recently Hope, who turned 100 on May 29, 2003 and died shortly thereafter, still swatted the ceremonial first ball. This ardor brings to mind a story Jack Benny used to love to tell.
He encountered Hope one afternoon limping off a course in Palm Springs, moaning about how badly he was playing. Benny went through a whole litany of excuses on Hope’s behalf, concluding that with his busy schedule he couldn’t possibly play enough golf to keep his game in shape.
“You damn fool,” Hope snarled, “I play every day.”