When the PGA Tour returns to the Southern California desert this week, Bob Hope’s name will not be on the tournament for the first time since 1964. Instead, Jhonattan Vegas will be defending his title in what is now called the Humana Challenge in Partnership with the William J. Clinton Foundation.
It’s the end of an era.
Not only has the Hope been an institution in the Coachella Valley, donating more than $50 million to charity and virtually funding the Eisenhower Medical Center, this was the last of the early season events on the PGA Tour with a Hollywood celebrity’s name attached to it.
At one time, you also had the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am at Pebble Beach, the Andy Williams San Diego Open at Torrey Pines and the Glen Campbell Los Angeles Open at Riviera.
The only tournament left on the circuit with an entertainer’s name on it is the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open, the opener of the Fall Series, at TPC Summerlin in Las Vegas.
"The reality of it is that having celebrities’ names attached to these tournaments may have at some point driven notoriety, but in this era you need to have cash," David Carter, executive director of USC’s Sports Business Institute, told the Los Angeles Times.
"You need to have tournaments that are profitable and self-sustainable, and if you don’t have that, the tournaments are going to go under."
That’s fine, but the titles AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, the Farmers Insurance Open and the Northern Trust Open simply don’t grab golf fans the same way.
Humana, the Clinton Foundation and others involved with the tournament are doing their best to keep the flavor of the Bob Hope Classic alive.
"I think everybody is going to be very pleased with the commitment that all parties have made to perpetuate the legacy of Bob Hope," tournament director Larry Thiel told Golfweek.
The winner of the tournament will receive the new Bob Hope Trophy, a "Shanks for the Memories" exhibit of Hope memorabilia will be on display in Hope Square at the Palmer Course at PGA West, and the phrase "Continuing the Bob Hope Legacy" will be featured on shuttle buses, pairings sheets and signs at the three tournament courses.
However, golf writer Larry Bohannan of the Desert Sun, author of "50 Years of Hope," has lamented that the Bob Hope Girls and the In-N-Out burger wagons will not return.
The Hope was the last of the 90-hole tournaments on the PGA Tour featuring a large pro-am, but the Humana will be a traditional 72-hole event with 144 professionals, an increase of 16 players. And instead of being contested over four courses, the tournament will be played at the host Palmer Course, La Quinta Country Club and the Nicklaus Course at PGA West. SilverRock Resort has been dropped from the rotation.
The tournament, one of the oldest on the PGA Tour, started out as the Palm Springs Classic in 1960 when Arnold Palmer claimed the first of his record five titles in the event. Hope put his stamp on the tournament in 1965.
Other names on the Bob Hope Classic trophy include Jack Nicklaus, Billy Casper, Johnny Miller, Phil Mickelson, Craig Stadler, Doug Sanders, Bob Rosburg, Hubert Green, Lanny Wadkins, Corey Pavin, Fred Couples, John Cook, Justin Leonard and Mike Weir.
In the early days, most of the pros were more than happy to play alongside the celebrities, even for five days, to promote the game, and the California events were popular among television viewers in colder parts of the country in January and February. However, most of the top players these days can’t be bothered.
Tiger Woods never played in the Bob Hope Classic despite personal requests from Hope, who first met Woods in a televised putting contest against the child prodigy on "The Mike Douglas Show" when Tiger was 2 years old.
Mickelson won the Hope in ’02 and ’04, but hasn’t played in the event since ’07 because he wasn’t wild about at least one of the tournament courses, However, he announced recently that he’ll return this week.
"I’m confident with the recent changes to the tournament’s sponsorship and format, and with the support President Clinton will give, this event, which has been one of the most iconic tournaments for decades, will once again establish itself as one of the tournaments to play in," Mickelson said.
Hope famously played in a fivesome that included defending champion Scott Hoch and Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Gerald Ford in the 1995 Classic. The tournament struggled after Hope’s death in 2003. Comedian George Lopez and later Palmer were brought in as tournament hosts, but the name couldn’t be saved.
Humana and President Clinton will keep the tournament alive, but things will never quite be the same.