“I think as we look at it now, what we're trying to do and build on are the players, and our PGA Tour players are our celebrities and our focus at this point.”
That was a quote from earlier this year by John Foster, president of Desert Classic Charities, who
oversees the CareerBuilder Challenge in Partnerhip with the Clinton Foundation. A tournament founded
in 1960 by, arguably, the greatest celebrity golfer of them all, Bob Hope, has embraced who the true
celebrity has become at golf tournaments: the professional golfers.
This week, the proudest celebrity pro-am of them all tees off on America’s greatest piece of golfing real estate. The AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am remains the lone golf tournament where the person playing
with a PGA Tour pro can generate more excitement than the pro himself. Saturday’s TV coverage will have more interviews of stars preparing to tackle Pebble’s 17th hole than views of the tournament leader.
The format is as unique as the venue, which is probably why is still exists. This year, the official
tournament site lists 30 celebrities playing in a field that includes a total number of amateurs five-times
that number. For every Mark Wahlberg committing to the tournament (and getting Bubba Watson to play along), there are four CEOs or power brokers who have also bought a spot. Good for them.
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Why? Golf fans don’t really care.
Yes, there are a handful of celebrities who have been grandfathered into the golfing family. Bill Murray is so attached to the game that he appeared in the Quad Cities last year at the John Deere Classic Pro-Am, his celebrity attached as much to the sport as the characters he is most known for. The crowd loved
him...and then even more showed up to watch Jordan Spieth the next day.
Fifty years ago, there was one transcendent golf celebrity: Arnold Palmer. His image, style and connection to a broader base of people made him marketable beyond his ability to hit a little white ball. Sports figures weren’t stars. Those were found on the silver screen, stage or album charts. While Rory McIlroy is probably less known than Leonardo DiCaprio worldwide, today he doesn’t need him.
Celebrity pro-ams in the past were the marketing drive of a tournament and a professional tour. The tournaments got people to the course and coverage in the press, driving up purses and providing a better living for the modest profession of touring pro. The economics have certainly changed.
McIlroy was the 41st highest celebrity earner in the world last year according to Forbes, and the third highest golfer, behind Phil Mickelson (36th, $51 million) and Tiger Woods (37th, $50 million). Rory made $48.5 million. DiCaprio? Getting by with just $29 million.
A half-century ago, the golfers were awestruck by those they got to play with. Today? It’s almost vice versa, with many partnerships offering an opportunity for a celebrity to play with a golfer they’ve come to admire or, as in the case with Jordan Spieth and country superstar Jake Owen this week at Pebble, a chance for buddies to play together in a tournament.
Make no mistake, nothing is wrong with how things have developed. The sport has a full schedule. The players have fuller pocketbooks. The fans arrive to see McIlroy, Spieth, Rickie Fowler, Bubba Watson, Jason Day and others who have ridden the wave of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson to arrive at a sport with even more golf celebrities. The game doesn’t need the draw of a non-golf celebrity anymore to make people interested.
Which brings us back to Palm Springs.
“The fact of life is, celebrities aren't like the celebrities were [back] in those days,” Foster added. “You
haven't reincarnated Bob Hope.”
The good news is that golf doesn’t appear to need to.