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Excerpted from THE MATCH by MARK FROST. Copyright (c) 2007 Good Comma Ink, Inc. All rights reserved. Published by Hyperion. Available wherever books are sold.
It never would have happened without Bing Crosby. By definition popular culture lives only in the present, desperately seeking currency and the fickle attentions of youth, without a thought to the past. But the twenty-first century's entertainment empire rests on a handful of original foundations that still stand, and for every one of them Harry Lillis "Bing" Crosby helped lay the bricks. Here are the improbable facts:
Bing Crosby sang most of the classic American standards first, popularizing the work of every important composer from Gershwin to Cole Porter, principal inspiration for every big voice that followed him, from Sinatra to Elvis. He delivered more hit records than any artist before or since-sixteen charted songs per year for two and a half decades-and to this day, at over seventeen hundred hours, his silvery baritone remains the most recorded voice in human history. He was the first white singing star to incorporate African-American idioms into his work, and in their collaborative recordings he helped bring artists like Louis Armstrong and the Mills Brothers into the mainstream.
For twelve years during radio's heyday Crosby starred in Kraft Music Hall, the most popular weekly show in history, and turned CBS into a national network. Bing also appeared in seventy-nine movies over a forty-year career, in every genre from musicals to light comedy to serious drama. He performed four songs that won Oscars, won one himself for Best Actor, was the number one box-office star for five yearsrunning, and remained a top attraction for over two decades. Alongside partner Bob Hope in their immensely popular Road pictures, and in every other arena he conquered, Bing Crosby embodied the whole idea of "cool" before cool was cool.
In 1937, scaling the peak of his stardom, Bing had another idea. A friendly golf tournament, to help out the lads on the struggling professional tour. A casual event at the start of the year to bridge a gap in the PGA's West Coast winter schedule, and partner the pros with his golf-crazed show business buddies for a thirty-six-hole, better-ball affair. A perfect excuse to throw a nonstop party-a stag weekend at the beach near the racetrack Bing had a financial stake in at Del Mar-and while they were having fun, why not raise a few bucks for charity? Bing took up the game of golf seriously while still a youngster in Spokane, Washington. Once a star, he played it religiously-considering golf a stress reliever and social activity, he organized his film schedule around his tee times-and expertly; Crosby carried a single-digit handicap his entire life, won his club championship at Lakeside Golf Club five times, and qualified for both the U.S. and British Amateur.
On opening day of the first Crosby Amateur-Pro, a monsoon blew in off the Pacific, the round was canceled, but no one missed a beat. Bing tossed some steaks on the grill and sang a few tunes on his own patio, which was just off the back nine. Mixed drinks flowed like the Ganges. Waves of aspiring actresses, unbidden, materialized like woodland nymphs. When the sun came out the following day, a rough-edged, smooth-swinging rookie pro who'd recently emerged from the West Virginia hills named Samuel Jackson Snead stepped up to win both the abbreviated tournament and the Pro-Am, then refused Bing's personal check for $732, preferring to take his prize money in cash, no offense to Mr. Crosby. The twenty-five-year-old Snead explained, in his back country banjo twang, that he didn't put much stock in bank accounts. He was still carrying around the bankroll from his first professional victory in Oakland only two weeks earlier.
Born the same year as Nelson and Hogan, in 1912, the youngest of five brothers from an Appalachian coal mining county, Sam Snead grew up around a swank resort called the Homestead Hotel in Hot Springs, Virginia, where his father worked as a handyman. Without much formal education, the Snead family tree was crowded with musicians, eccentric inventors, and gifted athletes, qualities that all found their way into Sam's supremely natural game. A tall, lanky, and almost freakishly strong physical specimen, he was the most gifted natural athlete to ever seriously pursue golf. Sam excelled at every sport he tried, but grew up caddying and fell in love with the game at the Homestead's home course-an early Donald Ross design-and landed his first job as a professional at the Greenbrier, a rival resort in neighboring West Virginia. He emerged from these mountain retreats a few years later onto golf's national stage, his greatness fully formed, as a kind of prodigal Forrest Gump.
Sam would go on to win three more times after the inaugural Crosby that season, the tour's second leading money winner in 1937, the strongest debut in PGA history. Over a career that spanned the next four decades the Slammer would capture seven majors and win more tournaments all over the world-135 is the consensus figure-than anyone else in golf's long history. His fluid, powerhouse swing remains one of the game's gold standards. Sam may have drawled like a hillbilly, but he dressed like a big city bon vivant, and under all that molasses and sassafras he was lot cagier than he liked to let on. Coming of age around a high-end resort, Sam had catered to the whims of the wealthy all his life; he would forever resent their class advantages, but he also studied their every move to his advantage, and as an emerging talent benefited enormously from their patronage. Once he hit the big time, his calculated but colorful image as a coarse, cracker-barrel country boy provided irresistible copy that made him an immediate favorite with the sporting press; public fascination would quickly follow.
Along with the entrance of Sam Snead, another legend was born that week. The first edition of what quickly became known as "The Clambake"-for the final night's seaside blowout, although no one remembers clams on the menu-turned into such big fun for all involved Bing decided to make it an annual affair. No one had ever put together anything like it before, but it was a surefire recipe: pro athletes, Hollywood stars, a sprinkling of corporate potentates, add copious amounts of alcohol and mix vigorously. Almost without trying-but then such an integral part of his genius was that he never looked like he was trying-the King of Pop Culture had invented the celebrity pro-am. Already an established star on the PGA Tour, Byron Nelson showed up for the second Clambake in 1938. So did his twenty-five-year-old traveling companion, Ben Hogan, struggling to make ends meet in his third dogged attempt to hack it as a touring pro. On the amateur side the wisecracking thirty-four-year-old vaudevillian and Broadway headliner who'd just moved to Hollywood to try his luck in films and radio, Leslie "Bob" Hope, made his first appearance, cementing a friendship with Bing that was about to pay off like the Irish Sweepstakes.
Sam Snead, now a national sports icon known as "Slammin' Sammy," successfully defended his title that year. The courtly Byron Nelson finished out of the money-paired with Johnny "Tarzan" Weissmuller-but he and Bing hit it off so well that Byron became a Clambake regular. Byron renewed his acquaintance that week with another amateur, a wealthy car dealer from the Bay Area named Eddie Lowery, who would soon play a pivotal role in every aspect of his life. Hard luck Ben Hogan finished eighth in 1938 and took home $75, barely covering expenses. On the verge of selling his car for a train ticket home to Fort Worth and abandoning golf for the oil business, Hogan managed to hang on through the West Coast swing and cash a few small checks. The following year he inched up to sixth, to win $112. In 1940-painfully slow progress-Hogan finished fourth and won $225, but had yet to win his first PGA Tournament.
In 1942 World War Two dimmed the lights of Crosby's annual bash and all the major golf championships, and altered every other form of American entertainment. Bing threw himself into the civilian war effort, performing for front-line troops all over Europe while leading the domestic war bond drive, appearing in countless charity golf exhibitions with Byron Nelson and Bob Hope. For his efforts the Armed Forces named Crosby the one celebrity who had done the most for GI morale. When civilian life resumed at war's end, Bing decided to revive his Clambake, a few hours up the coast, on the Monterey Peninsula, where he'd purchased a new home. He also suggested the novel notion of playing his tournament on three remarkable courses in the area: the Monterey Peninsula Country Club, Cypress Point Golf Club, and Pebble Beach. The PGA had never heard of such a thing and threatened to withhold its support. Bing told them he'd be perfectly happy to proceed without their sanction and pay the purse from his own pocket; from the legendarily tightfisted Crosby this was a threat difficult to ignore. (Dean Martin used to say of him: "Don't you worry about old Bing. He's got about twenty million...on him.") And so, played over three courses, the resurrected Bing Crosby Pro-Am resumed in 1948 as an official PGA Tour stop.
For a generation that had saved the free world and borne witness to the horrors of war, the Clambake satisfied perfectly their postwar hunger for grown-up celebrity hijinks. The general who led that war effort, Dwight Eisenhower, had won the White House and faced almost certain reelection in the fall of 1956. He had also become the first chief executive to unashamedly profess his love for the sport of golf, and insisted on playing it as a prerogative of office. Millions around the country followed suit; golf and the national mood were, at long last, in perfect synch, the country's future stretching out ahead like a pristine fairway. These were the headiest years of America's expansion after two long decades of depression and war. The shadows cast by the threats of the Communist cold war abroad and McCarthyism at home could not dampen a collective instinct for a recuperative period of smooth sailing, and the cultural and generational upheaval hinted at by the recent arrival of rock and roll into the mainstream seemed worlds away. The three television networks that ruled the airwaves were dominated by depictions of conventional middle-class families like the Nelsons and the Cleavers, suggesting a social complacency devoid of dysfunction. With television eroding the motion picture's grip on American audiences, bland wide-screen spectacles like Around the World in Eighty Days and The Ten Commandments dominated the box office. Jack Kerouac's On the Road, the first anthem of the coming counterculture, was a year away from finding a publisher, while racy revelations of cracks underlying the placid façade of small-town life in Peyton Place stormed to the top of best-seller lists.
With Bing Crosby as its reassuring public face, the Clambake's attendance and reputation grew every year, and the advent of national network coverage-along with The Masters, it was the first tournament to be extensively telecast-would soon turn it into a midwinter cultural institution. A chance to watch their favorite entertainers shank golf balls into the Pacific proved irresistible to the public. Bing used to hand out commemorative, handcrafted ceramic fifths of bourbon, whiskey, and brandy-one a day to every participant-so a good percentage were either still lubricated from the night before when they reached the tee, or replastered by the time they finished. The nonstop bacchanal that went on behind the scenes was less suitable for broadcast, but when the curtain between entertainer and audience dropped in that era, it stayed down. The few journalists lucky enough to be invited maintained a strict code of silence; they wouldn't dream of telling tales out of school, and there were plenty. Comedy, tragedy, drama, liquor, and sex-the Clambake offered everything to its privileged participants except a good night's sleep.
Some old-timers, even Bing himself in private, wistfully regretted that the tournament never recaptured the warmth and intimacy of the early prewar sessions, but every January hundreds of stars and titans of industry sweated out whether Bing's handwritten invitation would show up in their mailbox. His annually revised list of 168 invitees became one of the most closely guarded secrets in Hollywood. Outrageous acts of supplication-one involving skywriting-were offered by big shots dying to get in. In the mid-1950s, in order to avoid these shows of unseemly desperation, Bing bought a house in a remote area of Baja Mexico and repaired there every year after Christmas to relax on his fishing boat, away from the telephones, and compose his list in peace.
At the Clambake Bing's rule was absolute. All the amateurs' homegrown handicaps were tossed to the curb; Bing assessed each man's game and without discussion personally dispensed the strokes they were granted. Sandbaggers were persona non grata; run afoul of Bing's old-school idea of fair play, and you'd earn banishment for life. His pairings were as carefully crafted as seating arrangements at a White House state dinner. Bing always took his pick of playing partners, but never rigged the game, only once coming within five shots of winning his own pro-am. By the mid-1950s, as Bing passed his own half-century mark, his game began to falter, while the responsibilities of running the show grew ever more pressing. He decided the time had come to step offstage, but not before he gave it one last shot as a participant. For his swan song in 1956, Bing decided to recruit as his partner the toughest competitor the game had produced in a quarter of a century. Four-time U.S. Open champion-the man now universally known as the Hawk-Ben Hogan. The defending champion from 1955's Crosby Pro-Am that year was Ben's old caddie-yard running mate, Byron Nelson. Now forty-four years old and nine years retired from the PGA Tour, living as a gentleman cattle rancher in Fort Worth, Lord Byron made the Clambake one of his only regular appearances on the pro circuit.
Byron's amateur playing partner, and his closest friend, was that car dealer tycoon he'd met at the '38 Clambake, Eddie Lowery. A member of the USGA's Executive Committee, Lowery had a legitimate claim as one of the founding fathers of American golf. He had been present at its birth, as Francis Ouimet's ten-year-old caddie at the 1913 U.S. Open, where Ouimet's upset victory over the English greats Vardon and Ray put their sport on America's front pages. The first American-born player to ever win a U.S. Open, Ouimet ushered in the era of the great gentlemen amateurs with his win, and lifted Eddie Lowery out of poverty and obscurity into an unlikely fame that would lead to tremendous worldly success. In love with the spotlight ever since-which seldom burned brighter than at the Clambake-the ferociously competitive Lowery had every intention of successfully defending his Pro-Am title with Byron in 1956. But as he drove down the coast to Monterey for that year's Crosby, Eddie Lowery had no idea that he was about to bear witness to the last shining hour of the American gentleman amateur, and had already set into motion events that would lead to that player's decline.