How the Bing Crosby Clambake, Now the AT&T Pro-Am Golf Tournament, Changed Golf

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How the Bing Crosby Clambake, Now the AT&T Pro-Am Golf Tournament, Changed Golf
Cosby started something special with the clambake - Photo from the Library of Congress files

It is time for a little history lesson. 

In 1937, Bing Crosby was one the biggest stars in the world. He was an avid golfer with a two-handicap, and he got the idea to start his own golf tournament.

Remember, this was long before there was a PGA Tour as we know it, and well before television covered golf events.  

Crosby put up the $10,000 prize money himself, and his goal was to get his Hollywood buddies who loved to play golf to come Rancho Santa Fe Country Club near his home in San Diego and play.

They would play in a team format of professionals and amateurs in the tournament. The goal was simple—learn a little about becoming better golfers, and then when the tournament was over, they would have a clambake for the stars and the golfers.

The first Crosby Clambake was won by Sam Sneed and he was given a check for $500. The event was an instant hit both with Crosby’s Hollywood pals and with the professional golfers. It became the most popular tournament on the West Coast tour.

After World War II in 1947, Crosby moved the tournament to Northern California, to the Monterey Peninsula, just outside of San Francisco, where there were a number of outstanding courses that suited his needs perfectly.

The tournament had grown so large by then that it needed to be played on two courses.

The field would rotate through the Cypress Point and Monterey Peninsula courses over the first three rounds. The field would then be cut for the final round to the 25 Pro-Am teams and the 60 Low-Pros, and they would play at Pebble Beach.

The format remained the same until Spyglass Hill, a new Trent Jones course, replaced the Monterey Peninsula Club in 1967.  

One of the most famous stories from the Clambake happened in the early 1950s at Cypress Point, when Johnny Weissmuller, the former Olympic champion and the original Tarzan in the film series, hit a ball that lodged in a tree.

He decided to try to knock it out. He nudged it onto the fairway, but before climbing down, he hung by one hand from a branch and with the other pounded his chest and gave out a Tarzan yell, as he had done in so many movies.

When television began to cover golf tournaments in the 1960s, the Crosby Clambake was a big hit with the viewers.

Crosby always had the Hollywood A-list stars like Jack Lemon, Dean Martin, Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman, Jack Nicholson, and recent stars like Bill Murray, Glenn Frey, Kevin Costner, Steve Young, George Lopez, Tom Brady, Tony Romo and Carson Daly all make the trip to Pebble beach for the Clambake.

Crosby helped the PGA in the early days by getting his friends to host tournaments throughout the country.

Some highlights from the Bob Hope Desert Classic

Of course his partner Bob Hope had his event in Palm Springs, as did Andy Williams in San Diego, Glen Campbell in Los Angles, Danny Thomas in Memphis, Sammy Davis Jr. in Hartford, and of course the Jackie Gleason Classic in Ft. Lauderdale all followed the template that the Clambake started. 

Those stars brought in their sponsors from television, and later it would be those same companies that would underwrite many of the PGA tournaments. One example of the power of stars to bring their sponsors with them to television was Chrysler, who signed on in the early 1960s to sponsor the Bob Hope Desert Classic.

In 1977 on a golf course in Spain, Crosby died of a heart attack. But his dedication to the game—and his star power—helped create the PGA Tour that we all know today.   

Recently, CBS Sports' lead golf broadcaster Jim Nantz told me that this weekend on the network’s telecast of the AT&T Pro-Am, “You can bet that we will make quite a few references to Mr. Crosby and what he started here at Pebble Beach. To most of the golf community this will always be the Clambake.”           

The list of winners at the Clambake/AT&T National reads like a Who's Who of golf. Click here for that list.

TV coverage of the AT&T Pro-Am begins today at 3 p.m. ET on the Golf Channel. Saturday and Sunday TV coverage on CBS begins at 3 p.m. ET.

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