Commentary

Despite fall in stature, Hope still a blast

Updated: January 27, 2009, 11:46 AM ET
By Mark Huber | Special to ESPN.com

LA QUINTA, Calif. -- The PGA Tour's been coming here to the desert for a long time. The tournament was once up there with the Crosby Clambake, but now, for whatever reason, the glitter has gone.

Without this event, Leslie Townes "Bob" Hope, Arnold Palmer, corporate sponsors and pro-am participants, we wouldn't have the same PGA Tour. They helped bring golf to the TV masses and blended tournaments with the corporate riches. For a week every January, the Bob Hope Classic brings together dignitaries, corporate CEOs, movie stars, sports legends and a dedicated gallery following every shot. This year marked the 50th edition of the event and the 10th anniversary of David Duval's closing 59.

Arnie's presence -- he has won the event five times over his storied career -- on and off the course in the Coachella Valley is legendary, and this year he hosted the event. Mr. Palmer was on the first tee every day shaking hands and welcoming the participants. It's a shame many of the big-name celebrities and top PGA Tour pros weren't playing. There should have been a better contingent to honor Arnie and Bob Hope.

Comedian Tom Dreesen gave a 10-minute monologue before we teed off Thursday at Bermuda Dunes. He told a few jokes, but mostly it was a tribute to Arnie. He reminisced about Arnie's signing autographs in the parking lot, long after every pro and caddie had left the course. After Arnie was through signing, Tom asked him, "Why do you do it, Arnie?" His reply was, "On the course, I'm the king. We're all paupers out here. I'm just one of them."

You could feel the magnetism between Arnie and the crowd as he sat in his cart this week. Every fan thought his smile and friendly gaze was directed at him or her. That's a charisma that's hard to explain.

Years ago, one course was filled with top-notch celebrities and the other three would have a sprinkle of lesser-known names. There were many top dignitaries. This year, there was only one, former Vice President Dan Quayle.

The layouts way back when were quaint and spectator-friendly, with yard parties off every fairway. We played short, tight tracts like Indian Wells, Tamarisk, Bermuda Dunes, El Dorado and Indian Ridge with the gallery packing the tree-lined fairways. The courses have changed, the spectators are fewer and only sixteen groups contained celebrities this year. For whatever reason, the luster is fading, and I could go into theories, but I won't. We just have fun this week; that's what it's supposed to be all about.

Robert Gamez is the king of pro-ams. He enjoys them, thrives on them and has made 14 cuts at the Hope. Only active players Fred Couples and Peter Jacobsen have played in more final rounds.

Because Robert was in on a sponsor's exemption, he's obligated to be in the celebrity pairings. We don't mind, unlike many of the tour players, and make it fun and relaxing for our partners. We played with Quayle, Yankees legend Yogi Berra, actor Michael Pena, Dreesen, Olympian Toby Dawson, former San Diego Chargers quarterback Dan Fouts and legendary voice of college football Keith Jackson. Two of my sports heroes, a politician I respect, an old-time funny guy, an introspective Chicago-born actor and an Olympic skiing medal winner with an even better life story than sports story; you just have to have fun with a crew like that. We sure did, although we missed the cut.

When out with celebrities, you get caught up in the banter, but I have to remember to hang on the fringes. I've had a few pros tell me not to get too friendly with the amateurs, but others want you to mix it up, provide some caddie help along with entertainment.

Five-time PGA Tour winner Bob Murphy used to pull me aside once in a while when I was caddying for him, claiming he was tired of entertaining the troops and wanted me to take over for a few holes. I'd try to tell a few jokes and deliver some light-hearted, deserved ribbing, and give Murph a break. You have to feel out your foursome, but 90 percent of the time, it's just like being out with your buddies. Golf has a way of equalizing the masses.

We were with Keith and Dan the first day, and listened to one of the sweetest voices pass out some jabs and a few justified compliments while playing a very respectable game at age 81. Both were sincere gentlemen and a pleasure to share the course with.

On Thursday, Dreesen carried his stand-up comedy routine from tee to green and entertained us with some quiet stories about his years with Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra. Those boys did have some fun back then. He had the crowd rolling with jokes he has told for years and years, but he has trouble getting the ball to the hole. We play with Tom often; he never takes enough club, so I usually add 7-10 yards to all his yardages.

On Friday, Quayle and Pena joined us on the Nicklaus Private Course, and I don't think we discussed politics for more than five minutes. The former vice president was more interested in everyone else and spent a lot of time talking with the spectators, scorekeepers, standard-bearers and marshals. Michael was a bit more focused, quietly concentrating on his newfound love (golf), until he aced the seventh hole.

The Golf Channel's Jerry Foltz was interviewing the VP just before Michael teed it up. When the ball left the clubface, Foltz called the ace. I've seen quite few HIOs (holes-in-one). It's been awhile, but I'm sure this was the most eclectic foursome. There were high fives all around, and it took Michael forever to get to the green. He was busy slapping hands with the gallery and walking on clouds.

In the next fairway, Quayle quietly asked Michael whether he knew about the special prize for Hope tournament aces.

Dan played him beautifully, hooked him hard and said, "You know you get a date with the Hope girl of your choice?"

We all laughed, and it brought Michael back to earth a bit. All he could say was, "We're going to a happy hour in Indio for drinks; I can't afford all you guys."

It was my first week out; the body was yelping a bit, and I was a bit out of sync. I had trouble shagging putts with the wedge and digging the ball out of the cup, and my putter handoff in the fairway wasn't smooth until Round 2 on Thursday. Five-round tournaments using four courses don't give you enough time to do your work properly. We met Monday, tinkered with new clubs and balls because Titleist isn't offering the same contract as past years, then played a quick nine holes.

That left me with three courses to walk Tuesday -- luckily, they let us use carts -- and I think I did a sufficient job to get us around. Playing a pro-am event gives you a lot of time between shots for homework, as long as you're concentrating and not hobnobbing with the stars.

My favorite round of the week was Saturday, not because of the golf -- we shot a few over and missed the cut -- but because we were out with one of my baseball heroes, Yogi Berra.

Everyone from toddlers to grandmothers loves Yogi, and the gallery cheered every time he got the ball airborne. I don't think he finished a hole properly. He was too busy hugging beautiful women, signing autographs and tousling youngster's hair, and those 84-year-old catcher's knees were a bit wobbly. He loved the galleries almost as much as they adored him. You don't see that much these days. Maybe that's why the turnout isn't like it used to be. It's definitely not the tournament's fault; Mike Milthorpe and his staff bend over backward for everyone, including the caddies.

A caddie always checks his pro-am pairings at the Hope for two reasons: to assess the week's tip possibilities and to see which stars are in his group. Most of the amateurs have been coming here for years, and the word gets out who has short arms and deep pockets. My guys had stubby arms. Most of the stars are easily recognized, but I didn't know one of our celebrities Saturday.

Toby Watson sounded like a C&W singer to me. I didn't know him, but I quickly became a fan. His life story from Korean orphan to Olympic medalist is well documented, and it was refreshing to see a humble, young star appreciate life. He's retired from skiing and spends a lot of time practicing his golf game, but also is actively involved with numerous abused children's organizations, group homes and charitable civic networks.

Watson didn't want to talk about his exploits; he'd rather enjoy the crowd, the golf and Yogi. We all did. The bogey-bogey-triple run on Nos. 3, 4 and 5 on Saturday was quietly forgotten because the camaraderie with the young and old sports stars was soothing. I enjoyed watching Toby and Robert watch Yogi; they seemed to be learning a lot about life from an old pro.

I don't like watching golf on Sundays for obvious reasons, but I had nothing else to do while packing for my trek back to Mackinac Island. There was a lot of emotion spilled around that lake between Nos. 10 and 18. We watch tournaments a bit different from the casual spectator, and usually ask each other what we would do. My friend Todd Newcomb, Tom Watson's caddie, and I shared stories and picked each other's brains while watching Steve Stricker's debacle. We've all been there, experienced the pain and frustration, and both concluded the stoic path is the best.

During a smooth eight, you just go about your job, express as little emotion as possible, and try to keep your pro focused ahead and not behind.

Joke telling doesn't work, and yelling is out of the question. You just go on to the next tee keeping your emotions intact. Murph told me years ago, "I want to walk off every green, look at you, and not know whether I just made eagle or double." You can catch your breath in the next fairway, test the water a bit, maybe start up a conversation, but it varies from pro to pro.

What happened to Stricker on No. 10 (where he made a quadruple-bogey 8), and the joyous walk Pat Perez made after his 6-iron safely landed inside four feet on the 18th green to clinch his first PGA Tour victory, truly explains the emotional roller coaster these pros ride. It's been a long time coming for Pat, and he has taken some knocks, but no one works harder at his game and physical conditioning.

Watching "H" [caddie Mike Hartford] and Pat enjoy the moment, shed a few tears and make plans to get smashed that night sounded familiar. You can't explain the immediate emotions around that first win; you have to sit back, wait and let it all soak in over the next few days. Todd said he spent his first win jumping up and down and crying at the same time. Me, I was so nervous in Birmingham watching Murph sink that last putt, I didn't know what I was doing. I just tried to stay out of the way.

It was long, unprofitable week, but quite enjoyable. After a quiet Mexican dinner with Robert and Toby on Sunday night, we said our goodbyes and made tentative plans for Pebble Beach in three weeks. We'll see, I might not want to leave the island. The weather could be better in northern Michigan than on the Monterey Peninsula that time of year.

Mark Huber has a golf blog at www.MarksKaddyKorner.com and can be contacted at markskaddykorner@gmail.com.

ALSO SEE