LA QUINTA, Calif. (AP) — Back when the tournament host was cracking jokes along the fairways and Arnold Palmer was winning the event with regularity, the Bob Hope Classic was a can’t-miss-it stop on the tour for most of golf’s best players.
Although the five-day tournament in the desert resort area of Southern California has thrived in many ways, drawing large galleries and donating a total of $47 million to charity over its 49 previous years, it doesn’t necessarily draw the game’s top players any more.
Tiger Woods has never played in the event, a 90-hole tournament spread over four courses starting Wednesday, with the first four days a pro-am before the pros go at it alone on Sunday. Phil Mickelson has been an off-and-on entrant, winning the tournament in 2002 and 2004 and playing the following three years, but he didn’t return in 2008 and isn’t in the field this time.
The tournament never really has drawn foreign stars, and none of the top 15 players in the world rankings – topped by Woods, and with Mickelson at No. 4 – are in it this time. When No. 8 Anthony Kim, who played high school golf in La Quinta, withdrew Tuesday because of a sore right shoulder, that left No. 16 Steve Stricker as the highest-ranked player in the field.
Palmer, the inaugural Hope champion in 1960 who went on to win it four more times, was diplomatic when asked about the absence of top players in recent years, saying it was a tough question and he didn’t want to get caught in “a crossfire.”
But serving as the tournament host this year for the 50th anniversary of the Hope, Palmer obviously wishes more big names would show up.
“It’s been good for all of the players, the people who are out here playing and I would just hope that they would understand that they need to support tournaments as much as they possibly can,” he said Tuesday. “I know that you can’t play every week. But when I hear some of the reasons for not playing, it disturbs me a little. And they do need to get out and support the events.
“I used to spread my tournament appearances so that I never missed a tournament more than two years in a row. Tournaments like the Hope, of course I played every year because I just simply enjoyed being here.”
There are a number of factors that might influence players to pass up the Hope.
Many players set up their schedule for tournaments leading up to the majors, and the timing of the Hope makes it less than ideal for that purpose. Some players may not like the format, where they are paired with amateurs for the first 72 holes, including entertainment celebrities and stars from other sports and the accompanying hoopla in the galleries. Foreign players are occupied with other events around the world.
Justin Leonard, the 2005 Hope champion, said he likes to play the event for many reasons.
“It’s a very relaxed atmosphere,” he said. “Playing with the amateurs, they have always shown a lot of respect, knowing that we are here competing and this is part of our job,” he said. “I know how much this event means to the area and it’s nice to be able to come back and support it.”
PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem is trying to convince players to play in more tournaments, and he liked Palmer’s approach of trying not to miss an event more than two years in a row.
“We have a lot more tournaments now, but yes it would be (a good idea),” Finchem said. “And mixing up their schedules is what we’re talking about now.”
The Hope, Finchem said, remains strong regardless.
“I think the strength of the tournament here is that we’ve obviously had a good sponsor (Chrysler) for a long time and the community is invigorated and integrated into this tournament,” he said.
Finchem noted the tournament has made major donations over the years to the Eisenhower Medical Center, “and at least at this juncture, we don’t see it falling off for now. That’s the good news.”
Helping to draw fans to the courses each year is the celebrity and sports stars lineup, which this year is slated to include Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson, AL Rookie of the Year Evan Longoria of the Tampa Rays and Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, rocker Alice Cooper and actor Kurt Russell.
The galleries weren’t always as large.
“In the early days, I knew everyone in the gallery. Well, almost,” Palmer said with a grin.