Always a song and a dance

NEWPORT BEACH — As the Toshiba Senior Classic enters its milestone 10th year in our neighborhood, there's plenty of history on its side, beginning with golf's senior tour in 1994.

But the Champions Tour event, which has been played at Newport Beach Country Club every year except the inaugural Toshiba Senior Classic in 1995 at Mesa Verde Country Club, goes beyond Omni putters and vacuum forged titanium drivers.

Several golfers played in the former Crosby Southern Pro-Am at Newport Beach (formerly known as Irvine Coast Country Club) when they were young or up-and-coming players — for many, before they even reached the PGA Tour — and now these same graying players graze the same golf course today in the Toshiba Classic.

The connection among players goes back to the mid-1970s, when the star-studded fundraising group at Hoag Hospital, the 552 Club, started the Crosby Southern Pro-Am. From an operational standpoint with Hoag as the managing charity, the Toshiba Senior Classic can be traced back to when Bing Crosby, the late entertainment icon, got the ball rolling on the satellite tour event.

Crosby, good buddies with Newport Beach's Marshall Duffield, felt bad for the golfers up north in Pebble Beach who didn't make the cut at his former Crosby National Pro-Am and had nowhere to play over the weekend. And so 552 Club members Duffield and Charley Hester started the "Little Crosby."

Duffield had urged Crosby for years, local lore has it, to link a two-day mini-tour stop to his Pebble Beach clambake, and, one toasty night during a Christmas party Crosby said yes. Crosby could now take care of the weather-beaten and tour-beaten golfers who were stuck in an empty hotel room in pricey Monterey or Carmel.

An avid golfer himself, Bing wanted to give them hope, lift their spirits, provide another purse for these guys, some of whom were broke, lonely and out of birdie putts, never getting past the cut at the former Crosby National Pro-Am. Like a great entertainer, Crosby gave them good theater on a budget, set up in Newport Beach by two distinguished gentlemen, Duffield and Hester, who made service a priority for golf's minor leaguers aspiring to crack the PGA Tour and journeymen looking for a weekend out.

It was long before the days of the Nationwide Tour. Crosby gave the pro-am in Newport Beach a prize of $1,700 for the winner.

The first tournament was a success with 72 amateurs and Fred MacMurray of "My Three Sons" television fame as a celebrity player. Back then, amateurs were charged only $350 to play in the pro-am, but few signed up. In order to provide a complete field, golf team members from local colleges were recruited. Gags and gimmicks were tried throughout the 1970s.

First played in January 1975 after organizers rushed in only a few weeks to get ready, the Crosby Southern evolved at a time, keep in mind, when baseball owner Charlie O. Finley of the Swingin' Oakland A's was experimenting with orange baseballs and paying his players to grow mustaches, while the ill-fated World Football League flirted with all sorts of innovative schemes, no matter how outrageous.

One year, a heavyweight Crosby Southern sponsor came up with the ingenious idea of pop-out cups, which were fixed at the bottom of each hole on the green. It was an invention that didn't last, but for awhile golfers in the Little Crosby could stand over the hole and catch their ball as it popped out.

"You wouldn't have to bend over and get the ball out of the hole," said Mike Crosthwaite, a former PGA Tour rules official who served in that capacity in the early years at Newport Beach.

It was Duffield who started the 552 Club at Hoag Hospital as a fundraising organization. The 552 Club operated the golf tournament for 23 years, an event known as much for its elaborate parties as its golf. The parties always had a theme and headliner, like Ray Charles one year.

"It was a lot of work, and a lot of fun," the late Hester, a noted philanthropist, once said, referring to the first year when he and Duffield scrambled in about a month to stage the inaugural Crosby Southern Pro-Am.

Hoag Hospital and its army of tournament volunteers for the old Crosby Southern clambake (later known as the Newport Classic Pro-Am) closed up shop after the 1997 event and shifted over to the Toshiba Senior Classic, which was played for the first time under the auspices of Hoag in 1998.