In defense of Bill Murray
If Deane Beman had his way, the Bill Murray Experience would have ended as soon as it started. It was 1993, and the then-commissioner was furious. Murray, in his second appearance at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, had dragged an older (albeit willing) woman from the gallery for a quick soiree in a bunker, one that ended with her flailing into the sand.
Coupled with other antics, like Murray yelling “Hurry Up!” towards former Vice President Dan Quayle—let it be known slow play is far from a modern issue—Beman had seen enough, calling the funny man’s behavior “inappropriate and detrimental.” Never one to fall in line, Murray fired back. “It’s a Nazi state out here,” he joked. “He’s trying to ban us from the tournament because it’s too much fun. He’s out of touch. He’s just another screwhead too big for his britches.”
Beman was a visionary, his tenure marked by growth and prosperity. But diplomacy wasn’t always his forte. Though he punished Murray the following year by relegating him to a tee time outside the TV broadcast window, Murray remained one of the biggest draws at Pebble. Tournament organizers not only disregarded Beman’s request to have Murray tone down his act, they openly sided with the comedic force.
“Bill Murray has been great for this tournament,” said Darius Keaton, vice chairman of the AT&T, in 1994. “We raise money for charity. He’s been a great help and a terrific guy. And Beman would push him out of the tournament.”
Beman retired from his post shortly thereafter, and his successor, Tim Finchem, restored the tour’s relationship with Murray. Two decades later, that olive branch has proved fruitful for both sides. Murray is a part of the tournament’s marketing campaign, a featured player on the weekend broadcast, and continues to garner the week’s biggest crowds.
In turn, Murray’s Pebble popularity has helped spawn his own golf clothing line, and one could easily correlate his pro-am theatrics fueling his “America’s favorite photo bomb” persona.
And yet, every time golf returns to Carmel Bay, a segment of golf fans wish Beman would’ve prevailed.
Murray’s relationship with Pebble has engendered, to some, a share of unfortunate consequences. Celebrities (and their marketing teams) saw what Murray had become and thought, “Hey, why can’t we tap into that?” An invite to the Monterey Peninsula need not be just a three-day excursion to play on some of the best golf courses with the best players; it could be an opportunity to build one’s brand.
That logic overlooked one big point: There's only one Bill Murray. His actions were extensions of his own unique character—or at least the one the public had known from his work. It gave his theater-on-the-grass authenticity, but also made it hard to replicate.
Indeed, Murray is the exception, not the rule. Athletes, singers, actors and CEOs try their damnedest to ham it up in front of the cameras and fans at the tournament in the Murray vein, but more often than not it feels forced—and frequently falls flat. Murray preening over a good shot? Great. Andy Garcia or Chris Berman doing the same, not so much. Even in our culture that’s infatuated with celebrity, it can lead to brutal television.
Which brings us to another uncomfortable consequence of Murray’s act: the broadcast. Because of the positive response to Murray, the networks—in this case CBS—think this applies to all celebrities. It’s a decision that leads to B-list stars getting more air time than the tour pros, particularly on the Saturday broadcast. Worse, CBS has been guilty of giving its own talent a disproportionate amount of spotlight, the golf tournament becoming a platform to talk up its sitcoms and programs.
As a former tournament official told us, “Come for the golf; stay for the 30-minute ‘NCIS’ promo.”
Because he’s become the face of the tournament, Murray routinely receives a disproportionate amount of criticism for its perceived shortcomings. That’s regrettable, since it was Murray who provided a shot of vitality to the event, and the sport at large. Murray’s performance, in many ways, was a revelation. Golf had long battled its association with sanctimony, exclusivity and stuffiness. Here came Murray, tearing those walls down with a never-ending repartee with the gallery.
He tossed beach balls into the crowd, signed autographs between shots, pulled off the exploding ball trick with aplomb, and wore clothing designed from your grandma’s wallpaper. He had taken Caddyshack and made it real. And as weird as it sounds, that disposition was considered cutting edge at the time.
Murray was silly, and with good reason: He reminded audiences that golf is a game, and games are supposed to be fun.
“There were times when nothing I did was acceptable, and that somehow, what we were doing was a distraction,” Murray said in 2013. “It’s funny, people are very proprietary about golf, everyone thinks they’re in charge of golf, and it’s their own game, but it’s a massive thing. It’s like saying each person has to live the same way. We’re all supposed to be in this life for the amazement that everyone has a unique difference.”
Oh yes, “distraction.” That’s another charge often levied at Murray—that he had become too big a one. Except, when you talk to his former playing partners, who insist otherwise.
D.A. Points, who won his first PGA Tour title at the 2011 tournament, credits Murray for keeping him calm that week. “The levity was the biggest help,” Points told Golf Digest earlier this week. “We were having a lot of fun.” It probably didn’t hurt that Murray bought the pair ice cream on the final day’s back nine.
If anything, Points notes he was a good diversion, keeping the endlessly polite man from tightening up as he neared the precipice of a career breakthrough. Scott Simpson, the former U.S. Open champ who was Murray’s partner for years, testified the same.
“Bill wants to have fun,” Simpson said. “He knows the history [of the tournament] and feels that everyone is there to have a good time. So he amps it up a notch...or 10.”
As he nears 70, Murray might not be the showman of yesteryear, but he continues to resonate in a way unmatched by anyone in the game. A tournament official relayed a tale that one year the gate was down from the previous season, a shock given Tiger Woods was in the field for the first time in awhile. The next winter, ticket sales were back up as Tiger once again skipped the event, and the team came to the realization that it was Murray, not Tiger, that connected with the people.
“Bill Murray transcends all generations of golf and non-golf fans alike,” says Steve John, CEO and tournament director of the Monterey Peninsula Foundation. “If you take a look at his gallery, you’ll see that it is made up from men and women ages 15-70.”
And while he is the consummate entertainer inside the ropes, he also takes his golf seriously. He won with Points in the pro-am portion of the event in 2011, arguably Murray’s most impressive feat to this day.
In short, Murray embodied the “grow the game” ideology years before golf made it a rallying cry.
Officials find humor that some of Murray’s biggest critics are the same people who champion supplemental activities like Topgolf or the increasingly rowdy scenes at the Ryder Cup and Waste Management Phoenix Open. Without Murray, those seeds of acceptance would likely have never been planted. “This sounds sacrilegious,” said a Pebble Beach spokesperson, “but other than Arnold Palmer, I’d put Murray up there with anyone in terms of influence over American public golf.”
As for those who don’t enjoy his shtick, there needs to be some acknowledgement that Murray has good intentions at heart.
“The original Crosby was about fun. As it became more corporate, it became less about fun sometimes,” Murray said in 2013. “You can really cause a joyous moment, if you can sort of build up some sort of expectation, and then it actually takes place. … That’s what we try to do. Put on a little pressure, to make it more fun. To have a little more joy.”
Even Deane Beman would agree, golf could use a bit of that.