All Hail the Clambake

Pebble_Beach_hail

Bing Crosby would be turning over in his grave, looking for long winter underwear. At the charity golf tournament he founded in the late 1930’s as a getaway for his celebrity buddies, his “booze-soaked Clambake” pro-am at Pebble Beach, he was used to sunny skies and warmth, the only cold being the ice in the ubiquitous cocktails. This morning the tournament was suspended and delayed due to hail. Hail.

Bing_Crosby_golf

The staging area for Bing’s Clambake was golf’s west coast mecca triumvirate featuring storied Pebble Beach Golf Links, Spyglass Hill Club, and Monterey Peninsula Country Club, all within a mile of each other and featuring spectacular views of the Pacific. The neighborhood, as you might imagine, was populated by big Hollywood names and the wealthy, happy not only to rub elbows with Crosby and his coterie, but also to host after-golf parties, sometimes lasting all night, hungover players staggering off to morning tee times having stayed up all night getting hickeys from Hollywood’s most beautiful actresses.

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For most of the local California universe it wasn’t about golf so much as a 24/7 party that happened to also generate charity funds. But in 1956 the Clambake served as a backdrop for one of the all-time great matches in golf history, related in riveting detail in Mark Frost’s wonderful book, “The Match: The Day the Game of Golf Changed Forever“. Frost has written a variety of important books on golf’s history, including “The Grand Slam: Bobby Jones, America and the Story of Golf“, and “The Greatest Game Ever Played: Harry Vardon, Francis Ouimet, and the Birth of Modern Golf“. This last book told the story of the impossible 1913 US Open golf tournament, when a 20-year old amateur, who grew up across the street from the golf course where the tournament was played, shocked the world when he defeated the two biggest professional golf champions of the era, Harry Vardon and Ted Ray. (Vardon is still the only player in history to win The Open Championship — aka the British Open — an astonishing six times.)

In 1913, Francis Ouimet’s caddie was the irrepressible, 10-year-old Eddie Lowery. By the 1950’s Lowery had become a millionaire car dealer, and he and his rich buddies were fond of big-money betting. Lowery and his friend George Coleman made a bet on a seminal golf match, pitting the two most famous pro golfers of the time, Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan (Nelson long retired and Hogan entering the twilight of his career), against two outstanding young amateurs, Harvie Ward and Ken Venturi. This private match was played in the background shadows while the “official” clambake pro-am was going on. Ward was an “inveterate playboy who performed hungover on two hours’ sleep” winning the US, British and Canadian amateur titles, and starring on Walker Cup teams; he had a brief pro career, enjoying more success as a club pro, becoming the teacher of future golf great Payne Stewart. Ken Venturi won the California State Amateur Championship twice, and nearly became the first amateur to win the Masters Tournament a few months later, leading after the first, second and third rounds, losing — coming in second — only after a dreadful final round. Venturi enjoyed a successful pro career (including a US Open win), then changed jobs and became a famous golf color commentator for some 35 years.

Ken-Venturi

Frost’s story of the match between the two old pros — Hogan and Nelson — and the two young amateurs — Ward and Venturi — is one to savor. Lots of golf history, sure, and detailed match coverage, but which “is less interesting than the people involved and the historical backdrop. The match happened near the sport’s great cusp, as it transitioned from something for amateurs to a professional career, from a pastime for wastrel aristocrats and entertainers … to a mainstream suburban obsession.” You should read this book whether you’re a golf fan or not. You’ll thank me. You’ll want to send me some clams.

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