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Pebble whets memories


PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- In 1937 at Rancho Santa Fe Country Club, a first-year tournament called the Bing Crosby Professional-Amateur took off. Well, "took off" might not be exactly the correct phrase. Floated away is probably more accurate.

It rained so hard for three days that some of the bored players spent time shooting ducks on a pond near the 18th green. When the players grew weary of that, they shot at the hat belonging to Bing's brother, Larry.

Sam Snead won the fledgling, rain-splattered, one-round tournament and its $500 prize. Snead took one look at the check and winced.

"If you don't mind, Mr. Crosby, I'd rather have cash," he said.

That's how it started, what is now a $5.4-million tournament called the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. Once known as Crosby's simple "Clambake," it is miles, millions, names and years separated from its humble beginnings.

Phil Mickelson is the defending champion, his 19-under 269 four shots better than runner-up Mike Weir. There is a $972,000 winner's prize at stake, beginning today, when the 65th edition of Bing's brainchild begins at Pebble Beach Golf Links, Spyglass Hill Golf Course and Poppy Hills Golf Course, all nestled along Carmel Bay and hidden in the Del Monte Forest.

Chances are good that whoever wins is willing to take a check.

According to forecasters, there is also a very good chance that the weather will cooperate, which hasn't always been the case.

So-called "Crosby weather" is infamous, but there hasn't been a weather-related problem at this tournament since 2000. And - raise your umbrellas - this year's event marks the 10th anniversary of the 1996 tournament that was called off after 36 holes because of rain.

This year's get-together features 180 professionals and the same number of amateurs, many of them celebrities, such as Bill Murray, Ray Romano, Tom Brady, Huey Lewis, Kenny G, Andy Garcia, Tom Dreesen, Michael Bolton, Samuel L. Jackson, George Lopez, Craig T. Nelson and James Woods.

But not Tiger Woods. He hasn't played here since 2002, weary of the long rounds, bumpy greens and sometimes lousy weather.

Mark O'Meara said the condition of the greens caused Woods to reconsider his scheduling.

"He had a 1-footer one year, he could make it with his eyes closed," O'Meara said. "It didn't go in [and he said], 'That's it, I'm done.' "

Tournament marketing director Cathy Scherzer said going without Woods is not a crushing blow.

"We're Tiger-proof," she said. "The celebrities, Pebble Beach, great players, what can I say? There's something for everybody. And, on television, every picture is a postcard."

Title sponsor AT&T; certainly doesn't mind all that much that Woods is not here. It extended its deal to stay on through 2010.

This tournament has remained an integral part of the West Coast swing and has produced a long list of prominent winners. Nine of the past 11 winners were all major champions.

As for the tournament itself, its history runs as deep as Stillwater Cove, which washes up near the fourth hole at Pebble Beach.

Crosby died in October 1977 at 73 while playing golf in Spain. The next year, 16-year-old Nathaniel Crosby stepped in for his father as host of the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am. He said the family never really considered calling off the tournament. Some of the first-time celebrities that year were Lawrence Welk, Willie Mays and Billy Kilmer. Tom Watson beat Ben Crenshaw in a playoff and made $45,000.

Nathaniel is 44 and playing again this week, joined by his brother, Harry, 57. They are playing in the same foursome for the first time in the tournament their father started.

There's also one more Crosby on hand this week. Bing's widow, Kathryn, is attending the tournament for the first time since 1986, which is a pivotal year in the event's history, marking the removal of Crosby's name from the tournament title and the birth of the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

Crosby said yesterday that she was impressed with how the tournament had grown.

"It's a little bit old and a little bit new," she said.

Nothing lasts forever, although memories may come close and Crosby, who is 72, probably will experience her share this week. For old times' sake, she is staying in the same room at Cypress Point that she and Bing used to share for years during the old Crosby tournament that came complete with the old Crosby weather.

"I remember when Bing would get up in the morning and curse at the weather," she said.

This week, though, the sun is shining. And even if the old Crosby isn't coming back, what Bing left behind has raised more than $55 million for charity. Circumstances have changed since the rain and the ducks and Snead and 1937.

One thing is, the checks are good.

Thomas Bonk writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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