June 25, 2007

Crosby's Golden Age of celebrity

They once threatened to put a bronze nameplate on the back of the chair. It would honor the guy who sat there through, oh, I don't know, 16 or 17 straight Crosbys.

This was in Club XIX in the Pebble Beach Lodge from the late '60s into the early '80s. It's where I spent almost every night during the week of the Crosby from, say, around 7 in the evening until closing time, whenever that was.

It's where I would let my cigarettes and young scotches and their backup cousins spend time with those who dropped by, be it movie stars like Jack Lemmon and Jim Garner, a pro golfer such as Dave Marr, TV celebs of the Jack Whitaker ilk, sportswriter pals, amateur competitors of varying thirsts, or total strangers, of which there were countless dozens.

Having no threshold for inconvenience, I would, of course, be staying in a suite at the Lodge when I covered the Crosby back then, magazine expense accounts being what they were at the time. Don't tell me there were no "good old days" in sports.

The chair was actually a wooden bar stool with a backrest, and it was in the near corner on your right as you came down from the lobby and entered into what most people called the casual downstairs restaurant and I called the tournament headquarters.

Actually, I didn't know the restaurant is still there. I haven't been back since, well, since Kikuo Arai or somebody like that almost won the thing and some wry wit took Crosby out of the name of the tournament.

Dinner wasn't always a handful of peanuts or a shrimp puff, as you might imagine. Now I can confess: I cheated. I would take the precaution of having a room-service cheeseburger and fries before going out to meet the evening's discussions of 19th-century European literature.

Maybe I'd end the evening with another cheeseburger, thanks to the efforts of Chris Ursino, longtime bartender deluxe, who could handle all of your refreshment needs. Chris has become late of this world and is now serving patrons at the Great Lodge in the Sky, guaranteeing intellectual conversation with each backup.

With the knowledge that many captains of industry and otherwise honest and successful business executives would eat dirty laundry to gain an invitation to play in the Crosby, I held the distinction of turning down the opportunity four times.

I looked at it this way: Why would I want to rise at dawn every day and freeze to death or get soaked by the drizzle or hammered by the winds while suffering the agony of trying to hack my golf ball out of the ice plant when I could watch others do it and not be exhausted when it came time to take my evening chair in Club XIX?

It was always a pleasure to discuss golf with Jack Lemmon.

"I did it today," he said one night, quite proudly, gripping an imaginary club, taking a swing. "On No. 7 at Pebble. I caught it flush on the clubface . . . gave it a really good whack. Just like this — wham! I'm telling you, it felt so good."

"You hit it close?" I said.

"No," he said, "but it almost got airborne."

My favorite Crosby moment goes back to the days when ABC televised the event. It involves two buddies, Andy Sedaris and the late Mac Hemion, who were ABC directors. Sedaris had a habit of waking up Hemion on the phone in the mornings at the Lodge and imitating Crosby's voice to inquire what time everyone was expected to be on the TV tower at No. 18 for rehearsals.

One morning the voice said, "Good mornin', Malcolm. The Old Groaner here. What time are we gonna croon a persimmon tuneup on the Good Ship Tower today?"

Hemion hung up immediately, of course. Then when the phone presently rang again, Mac likewise hung up, but only after suggesting to Sedaris where he should go and what he should do when he arrived. Yeah, you got it. When the phone rang a third time, the director of the telecast listened long enough to realize that it was, in fact, the Old Groaner himself. Der Bingle.