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Thanks for the Memories

There is great risk involved in starting a sentence with, “I remember when…” Anytime I do it in a golf locker room someone – usually Paul Goydos – will ask me what I remember about covering Old Tom Morris and Young Tom Morris.

That said, I DO remember when this was one of the special weeks on the PGA Tour. The Bob Hope Desert Classic was one of the most important, prestigious and fun events on the calendar for players and for fans. It was a week when a lot of people digging out from underneath the snow in the east or the Midwest could sit in front of their televisions, stare longingly at the sparkling fairways of the four golf courses in the Coachella Valley and dream of warmer days ahead.

It was also one of the must-play events for most players. If you only played twice on the West Coast you played the Hope and you played the Crosby. That was the list. Everything else was Glen Campbell by comparison. If you doubt that just check the list of winners: Arnold Palmer (five times); Jack Nicklaus; Billy Casper; Doug Sanders; Johnny Miller (back-to-back); Lanny Wadkins; Corey Pavin; Tom Kite; Fred Couples; David Duval and Phil Mickelson. Those are just the guys who won. Plenty of others played.

In the days when the Hope was in its glory, golf was only on TV on the weekends. Saturday at the Hope was celebrity day – Hope clowning with all of his Hollywood pals and a handful of politicians – led from the mid 70s on by former President Gerald Ford who could always be counted on to spray a few shots into the gallery – and making everyone involved feel as if they were part of something that was important. Then on Sundays, the amateurs and celebrities moved outside the ropes and the pros played their fifth round – the Hope is still the only 90-hole tournament on Tour – for the money and the trophy.

Frequently, if he wasn’t in contention, Palmer would join Hope in the NBC booth and they would talk golf and crack jokes while the tournament was being decided. Then Palmer would often help Hope do the post-round interview with the champion. In 1970 when Bruce Devlin won with a then jaw-dropping score of 339 (21 under par) Hope asked Palmer if he had any questions.

“I sure do,” Arnie said. “Just how the hell did you shoot 339?”

If only today’s post-round interviews would be so direct.

Yes, those were the good old days.

These days the Hope is treated by the Tour as an afterthought. While Tim Finchem and company have worked diligently to find new title sponsors for Phoenix, San Diego, Memphis and Doral – among others – they have not been able to find one for the Hope since Chrysler pulled out two years ago. For the past several years the Hope has come right after the Tour is in Hawaii which means a lot of players skip it because they aren’t eager to fly from Oahu on Sunday and tee it up for real on Wednesday. As if that isn’t bad enough, the Tour granted nine competing event exemptions this week to players – one of them being Mickelson – who wanted to go play for an appearance fee in Abu Dhabi rather than play the Hope.

In fact, the event in Abu Dhabi has all four major champions from 2010, and six of the world’s top 10 and 11 of the top 20. The Hope? None of the top 10 and two of the top 20.

No wonder neither NBC – Hope’s home network for most of his life – nor any other broadcast network televises the tournament anymore.

Tiger Woods has never played the Hope. That’s sad. For all of Woods’ talk about his appreciation for golf history he has no understanding apparently what Hope did for the game. He did play at Pebble Beach early in his career but that had nothing to do with Bing Crosby, it had to do with liking the golf course. Now, even that’s not enough.

There’s also the celebrity list: Once, in addition to Hope and President Ford, you could find Crosby, Phil Harris and Phil Silvers, among others. Now? Other than Kurt Russell, the list reads like a group hoping to get on “Dancing with the Stars,” someday. In fact, one of the bigger names on the list is John O’Hurley who was on “Dancing with the Stars.” Can Bristol Palin be far behind? The closest thing to a truly big name is comedian Tom Dressen, who was once close to Frank Sinatra when he warmed up for him in Vegas.

Once upon a time, players looked forward to the Hope. They loved the warmth of the desert, the feel of the week and didn’t mind playing four rounds with amateurs. Now most of them roll their eyes and complain about the torture of 72 holes with amateur partners – celebrity or non-celebrity. It’s not surprising that those who play well in the tournament are those who like playing with amateurs.

“I’ve always enjoyed it,” Bill Haas, the 2010 champion said. “I feel like when you’re playing well, they becomes your cheerleaders. That’s kind of fun.”

That’s what the Hope used to be: a lot of fun mixed in with some outstanding golf. The quality of the golf is still there – remember these guys are good – but it doesn’t seem likely that TV viewers are going to get terribly fired up about watching Scott Hamilton yuck it up with Alice Cooper or Eric Dickerson lining up a putt for par net birdie.

The Hope deserves a lot better than it’s getting. Thanks for the memories indeed.