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Starring Role Is What They All Hope for

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Golf is the ultimate Walter Mitty sport, a Disneyland for grown-ups who can wish upon a star--and get to play with him.

Think of it. Where does what occurs in golf occur elsewhere?

I mean, does a garment manufacturer get to jump on the back of Willie Shoemaker’s nag and enjoy the thrill of riding in the Santa Anita Derby with Shoemaker? Does Dale Murphy take a cloak-and-suiter out to center field with him? Does an auto executive line up next to Lyle Alzado in a regular-season game at the Coliseum? Can you pay $1,500 to post up alongside Kareem Abdul-Jabbar against the 76ers? Think A. J. Foyt is going to take a passenger around the turns with him in the Indianapolis 500?

It happens all the time in golf. Guys who sell eggs for a living get to sidle up to Arnold Palmer in the midst of a $550,000 tournament and say, “Take your time on this, pards. We need this one.” Guys who spend their weeks shuffling papers or juggling carloadings are able to turn coolly to a guy who has been on the cover of Sports Illustrated 10 times and say, “I believe you’re away, Jack.”

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It’s pretty heady stuff. And nowhere--not even in the Crosby--has it reached the heights of fantasy-come-true that it achieves in the Hope Classic down here this week, where 140 of the finest golfers in the world, some of them the finest in history, get to match shots with some of the finest shoe salesmen of our time.

Golf is a game that never gets too far from its upper-class roots. It’ll never be a street game, a playground sport. Professionals have been able to eat in the main dining rooms of the major country clubs for only about 60 years now, and it’s the only major sport that still allows amateurs to play in its major tournaments. Rest assured that there are no amateurs in the Super Bowl, the World Series--or even the Olympics anymore, for all of that.

The notion of a professional-amateur team-up originated with Bing Crosby, a crooner and actor, and also a dedicated golf nut and frustrated pro. Bing invited selected golf pros and film and music celebrities to play in a frolic at Rancho Santa Fe 45 years ago, dubbing it a clambake.

It had a curious side effect on the game. It proved that the paying public, which might or might not care much about pure golf and might not shell out to see Byron Nelson hit a good shot, would pay through the nose to see a matinee idol hit a poor one. TV networks were to make the same discovery. Viewers didn’t care to see Jack Nicklaus on a green, they wanted Jack Lemmon on a rock.

The Hope is the apotheosis of the discovery that a bunch of well-heeled hackers can not only carry a tournament financially but can also build a hospital and fund the charities--and sell television time and expose the sport to millions who don’t know a chip from a lag.

So, the Hope is not only Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. The Hope is also Jim Crooker.

Who?

Well, James H. Crooker is a Long Beach automobile dealer who has played in all 26 Bob Hope Classic tournaments to date. He is one of only eight amateurs and half a dozen pros who can make that boast. Jim Crooker is a solid 10 handicap and, as such, is the captain of a threesome that will play with four different pros on four different courses the first four days of the tournament. The team with the lowest four-day total gets a beautiful hunk of cut crystal and the locker room bragging rights in Southern California golf for 11 months.

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For Jim Crooker, the stakes are even higher. For him, the Hope has been a focal point of his life, a touchstone of success. He has made fast friends, it hasn’t hurt business, and it keeps him young. His first pro was Tony Lema, and he has played with every Hall of Famer since, to say nothing of a President of the U.S. or two, captains of industry, legends of show business, and a few louse-types.

Crooker’s team won this pro-am in 1978, but winning is just a bonus. The real reward is being a recognizable part of this Americana. It has shaped his life. It’s a reason he virtually lives in the desert in a fairway house that’s been remodeled almost as often as his swing. The first thing Jim wants to see when he wakes up in the morning is a sand trap and a flagstick. The tennis court is for guests. Happiness is a net three.

The relationship of the touring pro to his blind-date playing partner of the pro-am once was held to be semi-adversarial, but the smarter pros have long since realized the enormous contribution to golf the amateur or celebrity partner has made. When Jim Crooker first began teeing it up in Bob Hope Golf Classics, first prize was usually $5,300. This year, it is $90,000. You get $5,600 for finishing 22nd.

For Jim Crooker, the payoff has gone the other way. What used to cost him $100 has gone to $2,000, and it’s up to $8,600 for newcomers to the field, non-members of a club down here who want to buy into the field.

This means that Jim Crooker has $35,000-$50,000 invested in the Eisenhower Medical Center and other community charities. The golf tournament has funded the Eisenhower to the tune of $8,944,309 alone.

So, the moral is, if some guy in a business suit in an office tries to tell you, “And then I told Fernando, ‘No, not the scroogie, the fastball!’ And he threw it and we won the Series,” he might be a dreamer. But if he tells you, “So I said, ‘No, Jack, it breaks right. Hit it four inches outside the left edge and you’ll make it.’ And he did, and we won the tournament,” he might be a Crooker.

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