CVIndependent

Tue08212018

Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

Every year as of late has seemingly brought about a major change to the CareerBuilder Challenge, the Coachella Valley’s annual PGA Tour event. The latest big change: In early September 2017, Lagardere Sports acquired complete operational control of the golf tournament.

In some years, golf’s biggest names have not bothered to visit our backyard for the January event—even though the tournament’s lineage stretches back to the heyday of the Bob Hope Classic. This latest rendition does not even aspire to reclaim the star-studded glitz and glamour associated with its history.

That’s what Jeff Sanders, the newly appointed executive director of the CareerBuilder Challenge (and the executive vice president of Lagardere Golf Sports events) said when I spoke with him recently about the tourney, currently played on three courses in La Quinta: the PGA West’s Stadium and Jack Nicklaus Tournament courses, as well as the La Quinta Country Club.

“Forty-five years ago was the last time that Arnold Palmer won the Bob Hope Desert Classic,” Sanders said. “We’re going to honor Mr. Hope and Mr. Palmer forever. But we also need to change—and the change is our entertainment, golf-festival-event model. With all due respect, it’s time to change this thing up, make it different and make it fun.

“In our business, if you get the question, ‘Who’s playing, Jeff? Who’s playing?’ Well, let’s see. Phil Mickelson is playing. And John Daly is playing. That’s crazy. That’s good. But the problem is that if that’s where it stops, then all you’ve got is a golf tournament. What I want to have is a tournament where the golf element is the centerpiece, and everything else around it makes it an event. That’s the difference—the food, the wine and these amazing green side pavilions on the 16th, 17th and 18th finishing holes of the PGA West Stadium Course where you can go in, have a drink and watch a little football on big-screen TVs all add value for the ticket-buyer. And then you can always look out the window and say, ‘Hey, there’s Phil Mickelson out there making a birdie on 17.’ You’ve got to make it more than golf.”

This year, anyone who buys a $30 daily general-admission ticket (and most likely pays a $10 per-day parking fee) will get access to all of the best viewing stands and refreshment centers—and be treated like a VIP.

“We want this event to be fun for everyone,” Sanders said, “and at the end of the day, we want to give back as much money as we can to local Coachella Valley charities. Our theme this year is ‘Golf Fore Kids,’ and so local children’s charities will be our donation recipients. And for us, success is judged by the size of our crowds. La Quinta is one of the best destinations in the country for great weather and great activities in the winter months. There are plenty of people here in La Quinta and throughout the desert in January to have a big crowd at our tourney.”

Another part of the Lagardere formula—and included in the price of admission—is music concerts. Huey Lewis and the News headline the show on Friday, Jan. 19, and the Goo Goo Dolls will do the same on Saturday, Jan. 20. Both shows are slated to begin at 4:30 p.m., right as the day’s golf play concludes.

“This year up in Napa (at the Safeway Open tournament, which Lagardere manages as well), we had six nights of concerts, Monday through Saturday,” Sanders said. “The year before, we had only two shows. So here at the CareerBuilder, (in 2019), we’ll have more than two concerts—I can guarantee you that. Whether it’ll be three shows or six, I don’t know. … We’ll certainly add more music and other fun things each year.”

Mike Taylor, a 45-year resident of the desert, is a golf enthusiast and former bartender at famed local establishments like Lord Fletcher’s in Rancho Mirage who served many of the film, music and political personalities who frequented the valley in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. Taylor regaled us recently with a few tales of those halcyon days of the Bob Hope Classic.

“One of my fondest memories was watching Jackie Gleason playing with Bob Hope,” Taylor said. “Gleason was wearing a sweater vest and tie. He was ‘dressed to the nines.’ The Saturday I saw them, it was on Bermuda Dunes, and Gleason didn’t play well. From what I understand, he had a massive hangover, because I also understand that he was a pretty handy drinker. He stayed at the Spa Hotel for the whole week, and because the celebrities who played in the ProAm didn’t get any money (from the organizers), he did run up a pretty good tab of around $10,000. I heard he said, ‘Give it to Bob Hope,’ when he checked out. But I think he was probably worth it, because there were enormous crowds when I was out there. I mean, you could hardly walk.”

Even back then, the weekend wasn’t only about golf. “One of the fun things about the tournament experience at that time was that each night, after play ended, there’d be impromptu jam sessions at various hotels in the valley, and they’d be packed,” Taylor said. “You never knew who you’d run into having fun at one of those happenings. That was in the old days when the Hebert brothers were still playing on the PGA Tour … Jay and Lionel Hebert, and you had Jimmy Demaret from Texas. These were all fun-loving guys who liked to sing. But you could wind up seeing Arnold Palmer sing, and (Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop) Maury Wills playing the banjo and singing. There was Jack Lemmon playing the piano. It was just so much fun, like a Mardi Gras in the Desert.”

Alas, those days are gone and never coming back—and Sanders and his team aren’t focused on competing with the past or the PGA major championships.

“This isn’t Augusta National, OK? It’s not the U.S. Open or the British Open,” Sanders said. “This is a regular PGA Tour event. It’s phenomenal golf, but it’s not one of the majors, which people flock to mostly just for the golf. And by the way, why would you make the weekend only about golf when you’re in La Quinta in January? It makes no sense. There’s so much more to do here. We’ll have fun activities around the grounds at PGA West. We’re going to create autograph opportunities for the kids, and the parents, too. The fan experience will be awesome.”

The CareerBuilder Challenge takes place Wednesday, Jan. 17, through Sunday, Jan. 21. For more information, visit www.careerbuilderchallenge.com.

Published in Features

The Coachella Valley is a place where retired celebrities, in some ways, are taken for granted. Among us are retired movie and television stars, business tycoons, writers, NASA scientists and sports professionals—including Shirley Spork, one of the 13 original founding members of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA), and a renowned sports-education professional.

Spork, 90, is a long-time resident of Palm Desert. The red-haired girl from a working-class family would go on to, through personal determination, break ground and help make a lasting contribution for women in a sport that had never been friendly to females.

Spork was born and raised in Detroit, the only child of parents who did not play golf. At one point in her early childhood, the family lived next to a golf course.

“There was nothing much to do in the neighborhood,” she says. “I saw the boys caddying, but I wanted to play the game.”

Spork’s first club was a putter she bought for a dollar she had earned by selling, back to golfers, the golf balls that had gone into the water between her home and the course.

“I was about 11 when I was constantly going onto the course, and the ranger kept chasing me off,” recalls Spork. “I sold the used balls to some of the golfers, and they got to know me. Their ticket to play was supposed to get punched after the first nine holes, but sometimes it wasn’t, and they’d give me their ticket so I could play as if I had paid.

“I read about people like Babe (Didrikson) and Patty (Berg) and thought, ‘If they can do that, maybe I can do that,’” Spork says about the female golf pioneers. “I bought that putter because it looked good among the other clubs in the $1 bin. The guys all laughed at me.”

Spork actually built a small green so she could practice: “I cleared a space, dug a hole, stuck a flag in it and played by myself!” She later got some used irons from the friendly golf pro, and her uncle found a golf bag someone had thrown away.

“I wanted to compete in junior golf, and the Detroit Free Press said the PGA was giving free lessons. Whoever showed the most improvement got a $10 gift certificate. I won, and that got me my first distance club, a Louise Suggs driver. I was 12.

“Lots of girls came from families that belonged to country clubs, and they would compete in the city championships. I wanted to join the Women’s Professional Golf Association (an LPGA precursor), which was the only game in town at that time, but I was still in high school. The WPGA only lasted about three years, and then it ran out of money. There were no pro tournaments for women back then.

“Women now compete much as the men do, even if they don’t make as much money, but back then, women made their way as trainers and testers, and a lot of time was spent trying to find companies that would sponsor tournaments.”

Spork has documented her story in a book, From Green to Tee, released earlier this year.

“I call it that, because I actually started on the green, with that putter, but I made it to the tee,” she says.

The book includes stories about Spork’s rise to prominence in the game, and it also sets out the history of women’s golf and the challenges faced by the women who were trailblazers.

Spork graduated from Eastern Michigan University, where she received a teaching degree.

“We had moved back into the city when I was in high school, and the lady upstairs had a daughter in teacher’s college,” she says. “I didn’t want to go. I wanted to be a golf pro. But I went, and I studied physical education.”

She also competed in and won tournaments, and was honored not by her school’s women’s physical education department, but by the men’s.

“When I finished school, I started teaching, because my parents had sacrificed to send me to college, but my heart wasn’t really in it,” Spork says. “My mom said, ‘You should be doing what you want to do, not what we want you to do.’ I spent many years teaching part of the year and golfing whenever I could.”

Spork’s educational background served her well in establishing the LPGA Teaching Division, dedicated to working with young people, and educating golf pros about how to teach effectively.

“People may not realize that just because they play well, that doesn’t mean they can teach others,” Spork says. “When it comes to women golfers, we have to educate about smaller hands, less height, less body strength, club length—things like that. And you have to teach people how to teach; it takes five years to become a Class A teacher.”

From the time when she was young and wheedling her way onto golf courses, Spork has met many golfers who helped her find opportunities to get more time on the links—and to find her way into tournaments and jobs.

“Golfers I met could see that I was going to be a golfer,” she says. “Some of them helped me get privileges at country clubs so I could qualify for city and state tournaments. Sometimes I had to go in the back door. I did whatever I could to be able to play.”

Spork’s career includes tournaments around the world, corporate sponsorships, helping design golf courses, being a golf pro at country clubs, and teaching generations of golfers.

The second annual Shirley Spork Pro-Am Golf Tournament was held at Palm Valley Country Club this past April, with the proceeds supporting The First Tee, a youth-development organization introducing golf and its values to young people through in-school and afterschool programs.

“I was never a great player,” Spork says, with charming modesty. “When I started, there were so few women who stood up for themselves.”

However, Shirley Spork did stand up for herself—and it paid off.

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday at CVIndependent.com.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

As a teenager caddying at a restricted country club, I resented the bigotry, but accepted the tips. I learned to play golf myself and eventually got fairly good at it—but now I hate the game.

Let me tell you why.

The ecological and aesthetic harm caused by most of the world’s 34,000 golf courses—45 percent of them here in the United States—is widely acknowledged today. Natural habitats have been disfigured and destroyed to create highly organized, artificially watered and unarguably fake nature. Some people find golf courses calming and beautiful, but that beauty comes at a price.

Since 1982, the United States Golf Association has funded efforts to conserve water through improving irrigation technologies, planting grasses that require less irrigation, and using recycled water from sewage-treatment facilities. Despite these commendable efforts, precious water is still being squandered—including a lot of it right here in the Coachella Valley, where, despite a severe drought, golf courses continue to use about 37 million gallons of water a day. In drought-stricken Arizona, Phoenix-area courses routinely use more than 80 million gallons per day. The pesticides, fertilizers, fungicides and herbicides spread by irrigation water harm complex ecological systems on land and at sea.

So critics like me are happy that the game’s popularity is waning. According to the National Golf Foundation, a high of 30.6 million golfers in 2003 had been reduced to 24.7 million by 2014. The number of golfers between ages 18 and 34 has declined by 30 percent over the past 20 years. Kevin Fitzgerald covered this very topic in the Independent last December in a story called “Business Bogeys.”

One of the issues Fitzgerald covered: Millennials are apt to find the game far too slow—five hours or more to finish 18 holes—for their 21st century tastes.

The ultimate result is that more than 800 courses across America have closed in a decade. Some of these courses have become housing developments, others parks, while a few landowners have taken advantage of tax breaks by donating their properties to nature trusts.

One of the reasons for this change had been explained succinctly in Forbes Magazine: People simply can’t afford to play golf anymore. I find that easy to believe. In 1958, a friend named Bob and I, both of us college students, reserved a tee time and paid $8 apiece to play 18 holes at the famed Pebble Beach course on the Monterey Peninsula. (We talked about natural beauty during our round and agreed that the land, sea and sky we saw that day would have been far more beautiful without the intrusion of the golf course on which we played.) For a similar tee time today, however, Bob and I would be required to stay a minimum of two nights at the Pebble Beach Lodge or an affiliated property, and the 18 holes would cost us a minimum of $1,835 apiece—carts and caddies not included.

Mark Twain may or may not have said (the quotation’s origins remain murky): “Golf is a good walk spoiled.” But even that isn’t true anymore, because very few golfers still walk. Most climb in and out of motorized carts whose costs aren’t included in Pebble Beach’s exorbitant greens fees. The only virtue the game ever had—moderate exercise—is gone forever.

It would be impossible to pass legitimate judgment on golf without mentioning our current so-called president, who owns 37 courses worldwide. He also plays the game—though apparently not very well. Of course, former President Barack Obama and many others also played some golf, too. But Donald Trump is in a league of his own, as sportswriter Rick Reilly put it: “When it comes to cheating, he’s an 11 on a scale of one to 10.”

We assuredly have a right to ask for both better games and better presidents. I understand that a backpacker or cross-country skier might be too much to hope for, but we’re in desperate need of an authentic populist. When we get one, maybe she will bowl or shoot pool.

Michael Baughman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News, where a version of this piece first appeared. He is a writer in Oregon. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily the opinions of the Independent.

Published in Community Voices

Coachella Valley got a break from stormy weather on Saturday, as predicted—but the sunshine didn’t necessarily translate into better play across the three enjoyable La Quinta courses of the CareerBuilder Challenge.

However, it did if your name was Adam Hadwin. Playing at the La Quinta Country Club, Hadwin became only the second player in the tournament’s long history—and the eighth in PGA Tour history—to shoot a 59.

“I think it makes tomorrow harder,” Hadwin, a Canadian, said in his post-round interview. “They say one of hardest things in golf is to follow up a low round. The Stadium Course is a much tougher course than La Quinta. It’s a Sunday. I’ve got a chance to win a golf tournament. That’s what you want.”

The feat vaulted him into a one-shot lead at the close of play on Sunday.

Meanwhile, other players—including local favorite Brendan Steele, as well as Hudson Swafford and Dominic Bozzelli—who had been standing near the top of the leaderboard for the first two days managed to post scores that kept them in the running. New tournament ambassador Phil Mickelson struggled a bit on the PGA West Stadium Course, and found himself heading in the wrong direction on Saturday, shooting a one-over-par 73.

The stage was set for what was predicted to be a soggy and potentially chaotic finish on Sunday, when all the players who survived the cut would congregate at the Stadium Course for a battle to the finish. As had been the case on Friday, the weather forecasts for Sunday were so threatening that the tee time for the entire field was moved up an hour, to 7:30 a.m., in hopes that the early start would allow golf to be completed before the third major storm of the weekend bore down on the valley.

As the final rounds began, 12 players were within five shots of the lead. Even though the rain did stay away, risk aversion seemed to be the strategy adopted by many players at the front of the pack, as they showed uncharacteristic restraint while playing the notoriously dangerous layout at PGA West. In the end, early-round leader Hudson Swafford’s 5-under 67 won the tournament, with his two biggest birdies coming on the 16th and 17th holes as he let loose his power game.

It was his first career victory on the PGA Tour. “They don’t give them away out here,” Swafford told the media after his win. “It’s not easy. I've been close. I’ve been in the hunt lately, and this just feels unbelievable.”

Earlier in the day, CareerBuilder CEO Matt Ferguson and Desert Classic Charities president and chairman of the board John Foster sat down with reporters to talk about the future of the event, which has long been a staple of the valley’s sporting season. Ferguson was asked if the presence of Roger Clemens and Joe Carter portended a return to the star-studded celebrity fields that came out to join Bob Hope when it was his tournament.

“It was nice that Roger and other celebrities came out and played (this year),” Ferguson said. “I mean, I’m never going to recruit like Bob Hope. I think that was a unique individual and a unique time. But I think as we have more years to plan and talk to people, and more celebrities want to come out, we’d love to have them.”

Foster said he was hoping to build more excitement with the tourney. “I think you’ll see Phil (Mickelson) getting a little more involved,” he said. “Already, there’ve been a number of changes. A lot of things you saw (this past weekend), like Fitz and the Tantrums (who played a concert on the driving range after play on Saturday evening), were kind of like experiments. I think everybody who we’ve seen was very excited, and it lit a nice fire. We would probably look to enlarge that aspect a little. We’re a golf tournament first, but we’re entertaining guests to raise money for charity.”

Published in Snapshot

One of the keys to the success of the big sporting events here in the Coachella Valley is the ability to attract top-notch volunteers. It is a not-so-secret fact that without volunteers, these tournaments would grind to a halt. After all, volunteers are the people work in the trenches and help with everything from parking to general information.

Meet Ellen Roy. She’s an Indian Wells resident who will begin her 20th year of volunteering this week at the local PGA Tour event, now known as the CareerBuilder Challenge, taking place Jan. 19-22. One of Ellen’s jobs is to keep a walking scoreboard, which allows fans to see the tournament leaderboard. The grandmother of four says she does it to help the community—and to meet new people, too.

“I consider many of the volunteers my friends,” she says. “We share the same interest in golf, and I have known some of these people for many years. If you are new to the valley and sitting around feeling lonely, this is a great way to get out of the house and meet some new people.”

Ellen is also competing in PGA Tour Volunteer Challenge. The winner can get up to $10,000 for the charity of their choosing. Roy—along with three other volunteers—is supporting the Boys and Girls Club of Coachella Valley.

“I have been very fortunate in my life, and I want to pay it forward,” she said. “Two of my grandchildren lost their father when they were young, and they spent a lot of time at the Boys and Girls Club, so I know firsthand how valuable the clubs are. They do marvelous work locally, especially in the East Valley.”

People can vote for Ellen’s team—or for the CareerBuilder Challenge volunteers as a whole—at PGATour.com/volunteer.

Steve Kelly can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Follow him on Twitter @skellynj.

Published in Sports

If you’re a casual golfer like me, you have undoubtedly seen signals that seem to portend an uncertain future for public golf courses, private golf clubs and golf retail outlets here in Coachella Valley.

When booking a tee time online, you may see more available slots—and cheaper rates—than there used to be. You may hear conversations about a certain club that’s eliminating all ladies’ golf events this season because of the dearth of female members. Then you hear about another club where revenue has fallen so low that the owners are poised to close it down and sell to real estate developers.

In La Quinta, the citizens and their City Council are struggling to create a viable community development to support the beautiful SilverRock golf course. Earlier this year, Lumpy’s, which had been serving the local golfing community for some 30 years, closed both its outlets in Rancho Mirage and La Quinta.

Meanwhile, golf remains a vital part of our local economy. Organizations such as the Greater Palm Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership point out frequently that the golf industry’s impact on the local economic balance sheet is sizable and therefore critical to our valley’s economic stability.

In an effort to find out what’s going on, the Independent recently sat down with Craig Kessler, the director of governmental affairs for the Southern California Golf Association; he’s the organization’s resident expert on all aspects of the golf industry’s longtime presence in our valley. We asked Kessler to evaluate the health of the golf industry in Coachella Valley.

“The golf industry is enormous in this valley,” Kessler said. “This is the greatest concentration of golf courses in the United States. The direct economic impact (of golf on local annual revenue) is over $1 billion. So for a population as small as this, that’s fairly substantial.”

A study using data collected in 2014 titled “The Economic Impact of the Coachella Valley Golf Industry,” completed by Tourism Economics, stated: “In 2014, the golf industry generated the following total economic impacts in the Coachella Valley region: a) Nearly $1.1 billion in total business sales; b) $413.3 million in labor income; c) More than 14,000 jobs. These regional economic impacts also generated significant fiscal (tax) impacts at the local, state and federal levels. In 2014, the Coachella Valley golf industry directly and indirectly generated approximately $83.3 million in local and state taxes and $90.5 million in federal taxes.”

Clearly, the game is integral to the area’s economy. Can the local population continue to count on it?

“I’ll say that we’re actually pleasantly surprised by the way our industry has withstood the recent challenges here in the valley—but also we’re watching it very carefully,” Kessler said. “Almost 27 percent of Southern California’s and about 14 percent of the whole state’s golf courses are right here in this desert. For example, the city of Los Angeles, with 4 million people, has 35 golf courses within its city limits, while you have 121 here. So the role that golf plays in the local economy here is phenomenal. I think it was Sonny Bono who said, ‘No golf. No Palm Springs.’ While that may not be quite true, certainly if you take out golf and agriculture, you don’t have much to drive revenue here.”

Kessler admitted the golf industry has seen some rough times in the last decade or so—rough times that he said need to be put in historical context.

“From 1946 to 2004, the game grew every year,” he said. “That spanned wars in Korea and Vietnam, urban riots, gas lines (due to shortages), recessions, double-dip recessions, etc. Some of those years were better than others, but even in the worst economic years, golf never suffered any declines. It continued to grow for 60 years. By 2004-2005, what I just described resulted in an industry ripe for an overdue correction—and that’s what hit the industry nationally, and here in California.”

Can the golf industry address the challenges it is facing?

“Over the last 10 years or so, the golf industry has learned that it can’t just sit and hope that (the players) will come,” Kessler said. “We have to become marketers, just like every other business in the United States. But I want to emphasize that when I read stories that talk about this game being passé, that it takes too long to play or is too difficult, and that people are no longer interested in it, I disagree. The facts that the base community of players has less money than they used to have, and the game has become more expensive than it used to be, are (the factors) driving the lack of participation. All the studies done about (consumer) interest in the game … show that the numbers are through the roof.”

Due to California’s record-breaking drought, golf courses have been subjected to unprecedented environmental and conservation pressures.

“One of the encouraging things is that as a result of recent conservation efforts, you’re seeing golf courses reduce substantially the amount of turf they irrigate, and maintenance expenses in general,” Kessler said. “By lowering those costs, we can reduce the cost of the game and put ourselves more in line with the market we’re trying to appeal to.”

Where should stewards of the golf industry be focusing their attention to encourage golf’s growth, longevity—and benefit to our valley?

“There’s no doubt that the lack of millennial interest in the game of golf is the greatest problem,” Kessler said. “In my opinion, I think that lack of interest results mostly from economic and financial factors, and not cultural or social factors. Honestly, I think it’s an insult to this particular generation to assume that somehow they are uniquely suffering from short attention spans and don’t like pursuits that are difficult. What they do have is extreme debt levels due to student loans. But if we don’t get them involved at a younger age, then they won’t be retiring to places like the Coachella Valley.”

In recognition of what some observers might call the anachronistic tendencies of golf and its culture, Kessler concluded: “There is something venerable about the historical traditions of the game of golf, but they need to be updated for each generation. Its values are timeless, but the forms of those values aren’t necessarily so. Now the private clubs are starting to incorporate families—and another encouraging sign about the demographics of golf is that Latinos, who are now a (plurality) of this state’s population and include many successful business people, are attracted to golf as a family activity. Golf was that way once—and it needs to regain that focus.”

Published in Local Issues

Play began in this year’s Coachella Valley PGA tournament stop—formerly known as the Bob Hope Classic, more recently as the Humana Challenge, and now as the CareerBuilder Challenge—on Thursday, Jan. 21.

Tour pros teed off at the La Quinta Country Club (the only layout to return from last year’s competitive three courses), the Nicklaus Tournament Course and, most surprisingly, the TPC Stadium Course. Players took on this challenging 18 holes for the first time—and, until this year, the last time—in tour competition in 1987.

It’s fair to say quite a bit has changed in the pro-golf world in the interim—much of it fueled by the impressive amount of money at stake. In 2016, the total purse for the entire tour season is roughly $330 million. Also, the simple game of golf—hit a ball with a well-manufactured but twisted stick until you knock it into a hole—now generates some $3.4 billion annually in consumer revenue in the U.S. alone. This gold mine has given rise to lucrative commercial-sponsorship opportunities

For each well-sponsored pro, every Thursday marks the first day of competition for that week’s tour stop—and it also signals the day they have to acquiesce to a skilled inspection by Palm Desert resident Buff White and his colleagues at the Darrell Survey Company.

“When people read golf magazines, and there’s a statement of fact regarding golf equipment and accessories—like a company says, ‘We have the No. 1 wedge on tour,’ or ‘the No. 1 fairway wood,’ then it would have to be verified by a third party, which is the Darrell Survey Company,” White said during an interview at the TPC Stadium Course this week. “We’ve been doing that since 1933.”

White, who became a permanent resident of Woodhaven Country Club in 2010 but traveled 46 weeks for the job last year, has been going through pro and amateur golfers’ bags on the first tee of every tournament’s first day of competition for 29 years.

“We check the equipment that the players are actually using to make sure that they are living up to their sponsorship contracts,” White said. “And, for the PGA, we’re making sure that nobody has illegal equipment in the bag, or too many clubs, or if they’re breaking any PGA regulations.”

Since the Coachella Valley stop comes so early in the calendar year, it presents special challenges to these PGA compliance representatives.

“For the first four events in January of each year, equipment changes like crazy,” White said. “These guys have had a few weeks off, so they’ve been able to practice with new golf balls, new wedges, new putters and new drivers, and everybody is always tweaking their equipment a little bit. This tournament is always tough, because you have amateurs playing, and the manufacturers always want to know what clubs are in their bags as well. But the amateurs sometimes don’t know what’s in their bag, so that makes it really tough, because they may have too many clubs, or they’ve got seven hybrids—and it’s a little bit disconcerting.”

What are the ramifications of these last-minute survey inspections? Is any corrective or punitive action taken right there and then as players are about to start?

“Sometimes, but usually nothing happens right then,” White said. “We’re not there to get into their heads. They know if they’re trying to use an illegal club, and sometimes they’ll do weird things. Like sometimes, they’ll tee off without a driver in their bag, and they’ll leave it on the third-hole tee box and pick it up when they get there. Or a guy will (think), ‘I’m under contract with company “X,” but I don’t want to play that driver,’ so they’ll show you the right driver, and then they’ll go pull a different one out of the starter’s tent on the first tee. So we’re always on our toes and looking for that guy who’s trying to figure out a way to get around the rules or his deal obligations.”

On rare occasions, though, if a player blatantly flouts the regulations, he could be penalized strokes or be disqualified from the tournament.

“Usually, other players will rat a guy out” said White with a chuckle. “If they think one of the guys is spinning the ball like crazy, they’ll go to a rules official and say, ‘We want you to look at this guy’s wedges,’ and the official would go right to the player and tell him that they need to verify the grooves on the club face.”

When White approached the bag of fan favorite Phil Mickelson on the first tee at the La Quinta Country Club on yesterday’s first day of play, you could read tension in the exchange between White and Phil’s caddy, whose nickname is Bones. (See the first picture below.)

“Phil doesn’t change anything in his bag usually very much, and Bones, his caddy, isn’t the easiest guy to deal with at times,” White said afterward. “He makes the tee box seem like it’s his office space, and it’s not like a golf course to him. So when he’s done with you, he’s done with you. But Phil had made a lot of changes today, which, like I said, he normally doesn’t make. But Bones was courteous enough to say ‘OK, did you get it all?’ Phil asked me the same thing. So, it took me right up to the last second, but, yeah, I got it all. It was all right.”

So, too, should be this year’s PGA Career Builder Challenge, which wraps up on Sunday, Jan. 24.

Published in Features

Promotion is everything when it comes to sports events. Dinah Shore knew that; that’s why, back in 1972, she attached her name, and fame, to a brand-new women’s golf event at the Mission Hills Country Club.

To this day, many still call the LPGA’s first major of the year simply Dinah. Soon, that might be the only name this tournament has.

As of Monday, April 7, what has been known since 2002 as the Kraft Nabisco Championship will cease to exist under that name. The food giant, associated with the tourney since 1982, will not be the title sponsor anymore. Instead, the LPGA will take over the event, and the hunt for a new sponsor will start.

Remember the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, the other famed local golf extravaganza? A while after Hope’s passing, Chrysler dropped out, and the event struggled to regain its former glory. Thankfully, Humana and the Clinton Foundation eventually stepped in, in 2012, as sponsors.

I’ve covered the Kraft Nabisco Championship for 15 years now. I’ve watched the great champions like Annika Sorenstam, Lorena Ochoa and Karrie Webb jump into the lake adjacent to the 18th hole after wining the tourney. That victory leap is one of the most notable traditions in the game.

So how do you sell golf history nowadays? I asked Annika Sörenstam, a three-time winner here at Mission Hills, that very question. The now-retired golf superstar is optimistic about the tourney's future.

“I’m pretty sure that the tournament will stay here,” she said. “First of all, this is a major championship. There’'s so much history here. This, I think, is a really an exciting opportunity for a company to be involved with. It's just a lot of positive energy. I’m very optimistic that the things are going to go well here.”

Sorenstam isn’t the only person who is optimistic about the tourney’s future. Tournament director Gabe Codding is optimistic, too—and his job could be on the line thanks to the uncertainty over the sponsor.

“With this year’s event, we’re celebrating the 30-year legacy of Kraft Nabisco as a sponsor, and I was there for 20 years of it,” he said. “This tournament has emerged as the most historic event on the LPGA tour. So right now, it’s all about finding the right partner who loves the location, who loves the history and who loves to be involved with the first major.”

Codding is confident that a new title sponsor will be found, perhaps within six to eight months.

"We will take a time to find the right sponsor, to make sure that the chosen sponsor stays with the tournament for a long time," he said.

As for his future with the tournament, Codding said that he started working at the event when he was barely 18, and is prepared to exit if needed after serving more than five years as the director.

“The day I know that there’s somebody who can contribute more to the tournament than I can, I'll be ready to step aside. I'll be OK with it!" Codding said.

There are sporadic rumors that the tourney could move to Arizona or even Nevada. However, that’s unlikely to happen.

The tournament’s traditions include a statue of Dinah Shore at the 18th green. How could you move a monument to Dinah—the first lady of golf—and the legacy she created here at Mission Hills to Las Vegas? Let’s hope she will forever stay here, greeting the champions on their way to history. 

Published in Local Issues

As she teed off Thursday morning, April 3, at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, Nicole Castrale had a lot to prove.

The 11-year LPGA veteran and onetime Palm Desert High School golfer needed to show that any physical concerns caused by her September 2013 hip-replacement surgery were behind her. She has been swinging the club again for just three months, after all.

By the end of the day, she had proven a lot, turning in a one-under-par 71 that put her five strokes off the lead and in a tie for 14th place.

“I now have a right hip that works, so it’s nice,” said the Palm Desert resident. “I’ve been able to pick up some speed, which is good, so I’m hitting further off the tee.”

To what did she attribute her opening round success? “I just played real solid,” Castrale said. “I hit a lot of fairways, a lot of greens. I didn’t make problems worse, and I just stayed real patient out there.”

Playing just down the road from her home also seems to agree with Nicole. “I’d say it took us 11 minutes to get here this morning. It’s nice to sleep in your own bed,” she said.

Is there added pressure to perform well in front of family and friends? “I always thought this golf course set up well for my game,” she said about the Mission Hills Country Club. “It’s a great course. One of the best we play all year.”

She then admitted that she does tend to force things a bit when playing at home. “My parents are here, and I’ve been here since eighth-grade. I can’t imagine living anywhere else. It’s an easy place to get around. My golf coach is here. I’ve got a great golf course I practice at, Toscana Country Club. It’s just home.”

In fact, family is never far away from Castrale when she’s at work: Her husband, Craig, doubles as her caddie. So how did Craig feel about their first day’s results?

“It’s a great start at any tournament, especially at a major, to get anything under par,” he said. “Long way to go, but definitely nice to have it under our belt and get the afternoon to rest.”

What do the Castrales do in the Coachella Valley when it’s time to kick back and relax?

“Basically, we hang out at our house with our daughter,” said Castrale, laughing. “We’ve gone to The Living Desert, but we’re homebodies.”

Husband/caddie Craig agreed. “I’m just excited to spend as much time as possible with my wife and our daughter and all the family and friends. It’s great.”

Published in Snapshot

The crowd on the Arnold Palmer Private course was pretty thin during the first two days of last weekend’s Humana Challenge Golf Tournament. In fact, during Thursday’s first round of play, only Canadian Mike Weir attracted a sizable fan following—composed mostly of his snowbird countrymen and women.

But during Saturday’s third round (Jan. 18), the crowd was noticeably larger. One of the largest galleries was following the U.S. pro pairing of Zach Johnson (arguably the hottest golfer on the tour) and Keegan Bradley (winner of the 2011 PGA Championship major title).

Along for the ride in the foursome: Coachella Valley amateur competitors Ralph Hemingway and Ed Michaels.

“I’ve played the last eight years with the (Bob) Hope Tournament and now the Humana,” Ralph Hemingway told me after his round. “And right now, I’d say the format of the Humana is the best of any of the pro-ams I’ve ever played at.”

The traditional pro-am format for decades had three amateurs playing with one PGA Tour pro in each foursome, and the tournament stretched over five days and 90 holes of competition.

“This is the second year that they’ve changed to a four-day, 1-on-1 (pros and amateurs) format. And being able to play with a different pro each day is just fantastic,” explained Hemingway. “You talk to the pros. … They felt like an oddball with a pro and three amateurs. Now they’ve got another pro to walk with, and somebody in the same tee box.” (Amateur competitors play from a tee box closer to the hole than the pros do.)

Back in the days of the Bob Hope Desert Classic, the tournament was known for the multitude of entertainers and celebrities who showed up to play as amateurs—attracting lots of star-gazers to the fairways.

“People would come to watch the celebrities … not the golf, just the celebrities,” Hemingway recalled. “People with the tournament ask me quite a bit if I miss the celebrities, and I said I really don’t. Celebrities are celebrities. I’m not really a celebrity nut anyway. They can play their game, and I’ll play mine.”

Does he plan on going back to play in the 2015 Humana Challenge?

“Oh sure, I’ll be there,” said Hemingway. “No doubt about it. I’ve played in the Dinah Shore and the Frank Sinatra, and I keep coming back to the Humana. They’ve done a lot of great charity work, and that’s a real factor.”

One last question for Hemingway: Is he related to Ernest?

“Yeah we’re fourth-cousins, and I have a collection of first-edition printings of all his books.”

Scroll down to see a few shots of Hemingway in action.

Published in Snapshot

Page 1 of 2