SI Vault
 
Some friends of Harry Lillis
Dan Jenkins
January 25, 1971
Several dozen of the game's most influential underachievers pull out all stops in their pursuit of reflected glory at the Crosby Clambake
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
January 25, 1971

Some Friends Of Harry Lillis

Several dozen of the game's most influential underachievers pull out all stops in their pursuit of reflected glory at the Crosby Clambake

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

You see them alpaca-deep in the ice plant of Pebble Beach, peeking from behind the evergreens of Spyglass Hill, or gazing longingly off toward Seal Rock at a soaring slice from the jagged seascape of Cypress Point. They are everywhere—windblown, wet, muddy tired and almost always terribly over par, but these are the friends of Harry Lillis Crosby, the people for whom the Clambake really was started. What Tom Shaw does, like win the tournament, is actually of little consequence to these holders of perhaps the most exclusive invitation in the sport of golf.

By number, they were the same 168 gentlemen last week who had either been actual "friends of Bing" over the years or had begged, phoned, written, clouted, threatened or coerced their way into the tournament. No fewer than 9,516 owners of darting hooks and buried wedge shots—and corporations, countries, etc.—tried to get into the 1971 Bing Crosby National Pro-Amateur. They wrote Bing, or Maurie Luxford, his director of play, or they phoned, or they had friends write or call in an all-out effort to snag one of only 46 golden spots that remained after the regulars were taken care of.

Amateurs who get invited once have a way of staying invited, unless they cheat or move on to the Great Pebble in the Sky. There were 122 last week who had played in the tournament before, some of them going back to the first one in 1937. In all of this time, the tournament had raised over $3 million for charity, building 12 youth centers and starting student-loan funds in 67 colleges in 27 states. But nothing had grown like the event's exclusivity. Basically, if you weren't a true old (old, old) pal of Harry Lillis, it was better luck next year.

A name pro can usually bring along whomever he chooses, and the Palmers and Nicklauses have been known to get two or three invitations. Dean Martin wangled three this time, close to the amateur course record. "I suppose there are about 25 players who are what you would call very close friends of Bing," says Luxford. "They would never ask him for a spot for their friend."

It is about the most confusing and far-flung of all tournaments on the professional circuit, with two events going on simultaneously. The pros play 72 holes individually for $135,000 on three different courses. In addition each pro is teamed with an amateur partner in a best-ball event for $25,000 in prize money for the pros and trophies for the ams.

The amateurs have a wide range of talent as golfers, some of them with handicaps as high as 23 and some of them near scratch, like John Brodie, the 49ers' quarterback, or Mickey Van Gerbig, a young lawyer from Palm Beach who is known to his close friends as Sudden Summer because of his blond hair and constant tan. Van Gerbig, a two handicapper, can play golf, as he proved on the first day when he shot a 67 at Pebble Beach to make up for the 79 of his partner, Deane Beman.

The amateurs played shorter tees than the pros, but even so, Van Gerbig's round was fairly phenomenal. He birdied six of the first eight holes—natural birdies, having nothing to do with his handicap. Van Gerbig's individual score got him and Beman a tie for the pro-am lead, but it was to be their only day of glory. Appropriately, two of Bing's old friends—Father John Durkin, an Air Force chaplain who teamed with Lou Graham, and George Coleman, a banker from Palm Beach who always plays with Jack Burke Jr.—wound up fighting it out for the pro-am prize. They had a bushel of handicap strokes, which is what it takes to win a pro-am. Also, this is what it takes to make all the other competitors complain, except when one player happens to be a priest and the other such a close friend of Bing—in the top, five, said Luxford.

It looked for much of Sunday as if Burke and Coleman had won, but here came Father Durkin to hole a nifty putt on the 17th, right there on national television, to give him and Graham the pro-am title by one stroke.

In fact, this was more exciting than the championship proper, where a dandy race had shaped up through Saturday when Tom Shaw held only a one-stroke lead over none other than Arnold Palmer. When Palmer eagled the 2nd hole on Sunday morning, the prospects for a brawl looked even better, but Shaw had played well all week and he simply moved off in glorious Monterey weather to open up a four-shot lead on Palmer and eventually beat him by two strokes.

It might be of interest to those of the 9,516 applicants who did not get their invitations to explain who some of the friends of Bing are. Fortunately, there was the usual document distributed to the press last week—longer on charm than it was accuracy—revealing all that anyone might care to know. Some random samples:

Continue Story
1 2 3