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Ben Wright: Days at the Beach

Appeared in the January/February 2005 LINKS

It’s nearly time for another Bing Crosby National Pro-Am—I’m sorry, make that AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am—which means memories of that great event come flooding back to me like the giant breakers that crash along Pebble’s famed 18th hole. Unfortunately those memories don’t include my actually having played in the Crosby, as it will always be known to us old-timers. I angled for many years to do just that, but when the invitation finally came, CBS had taken over broadcast rights and I had to labor in preparation for our weekend coverage.

Still, there are many wonderful stories that stick with me—some involving competitors, others involving myself and colleagues, and many that can’t be told in a journal as proper as this one. A tale that can be shared is perhaps apocryphal, but maybe there’s a reader out there who can confirm its authenticity. The late, great singer-comedian Phil Harris first related it to me, but he could not remember the name of the victim—or perpetrator, if you will.

Whoever it was, the gentleman must have had a terrible day—of that I am certain—because after putting out on the 18th, he quietly took his golf bag from his caddie and, with a mighty heave, tossed it over the seawall into the bubbling surf. Without a word he strode off, presumably to drown his sorrows in the Tap Room at the Lodge.

Some hours later the man emerged, shortly before sunset, and jumped down onto the beach to retrieve his by-now waterlogged bag of clubs. He fumbled furiously to unzip one of the pockets, took out his car keys, then once more consigned the offending bag to the deep, driving away and leaving his identity a mystery.

One of the funniest Crosby tales I ever heard involves Jack Lemmon, whose long-standing and frustrated ambition to make the cut was well-chronicled. In my book “Good Bounces and Bad Lies,” there is a photograph of Jack telling me (and our CBS audience) about his experience on a typically rainy day at Pebble. As we would say in Great Britain, the rain was “coming down like stair rods” and Pebble Beach was well-nigh underwater on this occasion. But in the best tradition of show business, the show had to go on. (Nowadays the PGA Tour would call off play on such a vile day.)

Lemmon stepped down into a soggy bunker and quickly took a slash at his golf ball as he began to sink into the ooze. “Where did that one go?” Jack shouted to his caddie. “Look on the blade of your club, sir” was the reply. And there was the ball, glued to the clubface in a great gob of mud and sand. Not knowing how to deal with such a bizarre situation, Lemmon, who could feel himself sinking inexorably into what was the equivalent of quicksand, clambered out of the bunker, leaving his left shoe in the slime. “By the time I had wiped my foot clean,” Lemmon told me, “the darned shoe had disappeared, and we never did find it.”

Perhaps the silliest incident during my long tenure at the 17th-hole tower occurred on one of the coldest days I can remember up there. (And there were plenty of those—that wind-battered location on Monterey Bay can be one of the iciest places on earth.) Bundled up in long underwear, battery-heated knee socks, cashmere turtleneck, fur-lined topcoat, gloves and multiple scarves, I must have looked like Nanook of the North, but on this occasion I was still freezing before we went on air. Hearing my pitiful complaints during rehearsal, the assistant manager of the Lodge sent out an electric blanket to me. Not surprisingly, upon plugging it in I shorted the entire unit. And immediately into my headset came the unmistakable voice of “the Ayatollah,” our esteemed producer-director Frank Chirkinian. It was surely the foulest barrage of oaths and curses that was ever heaped upon my head.   

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