How sweet it … was

There was a lot of mention of Jackie Gleason’s name, and a couple of his old TV clips, on the broadcast of the Honda Classic over the weekend.  As one of “The Great One’s” biggest fans, I was delighted to see this, just as I’m delighted to watch any one of the 39 old Honeymooners episodes that one channel or other brings back from time to time.

(The Honda Classic, for those who aren’t aware, was — back in the 1970s – known as the Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic, and was played at a different course, further down the highway from PGA National, the tournament’s current home.)

Also, for those who weren’t around before his death in 1987, Jackie Gleason was a very popular TV and film actor from the early 1950s on.  As beloved and talented a performer as Jackie was, and as popular as he was with his celebrity pals, the truth about Gleason is a somewhat darker story.  He was a real booze-hound, womanizer, and (according to a reputable biography I read a number of years ago), a bully and an egomaniac.   That didn’t stop Jackie from being a great comic actor, or his tournament from having some PGA Tour prestige back then.

Much the same can be said for Gleason’s pal, Frank Sinatra, who was arguably the biggest star in all of entertainment for nearly 50 years from 1940 – 1990.  Before the Beatles, before Elvis, Frank was the most popular singer in the recording industry, and from 1954 on, one of the highest paid movie stars.  But if you read most biographies of Frank (including the two-volume opus by James Kaplan, which I just finished), you’ll find Frank was, um… a booze-hound, womanizer, bully and egomaniac.

Frank also lent his name to a golf tournament, but only for one year, in Palm Springs in 1963.  Why it didn’t continue is lost to the sands of time, but perhaps it was overshadowed by the Palm Springs Desert Classic, which had been around since the early 50s, and eventually became the Bob Hope Desert Classic in 1965 (and continues to this day under a new name, the ever memorable CareerBuilder Challenge.)

The whole celebrity name/golf tournament thing, as most people know, was started as a low-key, private get-together in 1937 by singer Bing Crosby, who at that time was the number one popular singer in America.  Bing was beloved by his millions of fans as a charming, witty, handsome, low-key crooner, but in reality, apparently, was also… a womanizer, aloof, unfriendly, egomaniac.  (Not sure if he was booze-hound or a bully, but I don’t think so.)

I wrote a column here about celebrity golf tournaments several months ago, so I don’t need to go over the same material.   I think I counted 15 celebrities who, at one time or another, had their names on golf tournaments.

The last celebrity to have his name on a PGA Tour event was Justin Timberlake, whose association with an event in Las Vegas ended three years ago.  Even then, Timberlake’s title was a throwback to an era that had ended by the turn of the century, and probably just as well, in my view.  It must’ve been pretty challenging for golf events to have to “fire” their celebrity, especially if said celebrity’s career was on the wane or down in the dumps, or for that matter, never really amounted to much, like Joe Garagiola or Jamie Farr… two names probably completely unfamiliar to anyone under the age of forty today.

But if that trend had continued, can you imagine today tuning into the Sean Penn Champions, the Kanye and Kim Invitational, or the Donald Trump Classic for Homeless Losers?  It’s bad enough that Trump has his corporate name on several golf courses – including the venerable Turnberry, in Scotland, site of four previous Open Championships.   Turnberry has not been chosen to host any upcoming Opens, and in view of its owner’s outrageous pronouncements and reputation, may never be again.

The one thing you can say about celebrity name tournaments, though, is, or was, that they did provide golf fans with instant recognition… something you just can’t say about today’s corporate-sponsored events.

Quick… who’s the sponsor of the former Glen Campbell LA Open, played last week?  Who was the sponsor last year of the CareerBuilder Challenge – formerly the Bob Hope Desert Classic – played in Palm Springs three weeks ago?  What’s the current name of the old Sammy Davis Jr. Greater Hartford Open, a fixture on the Tour for decades?  Or, on the Women’s side, what’s the tournament descendant of the old Jamie Farr Toledo Classic, always played in Ohio?

I don’t have a clue, either.  But when they had celebrity names, they had a much more familiar brand.

Come to think of it, maybe having a booze-hound, womanizing, bullying, egomaniacal celebrity hanging around to hand out the trophy wasn’t such a bad thing.


Jim Deeks
Jim Deeks has been writing for Fairways for over a dozen years. He is a former Executive Director of the Canadian Open and Canadians Skins Game, and currently the Executive Producer and Host of CANADA FILES on PBS.

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