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Hope left mark on golfing

Posted: Tuesday, July 29, 2003

When Bob Hope celebrated his last birthday, it was the only time he was happy to hit 100.

He played golf for fun but was serious about the game, taking lessons from every pro he could find to correct a swing he described as looking like ''a polo player without a horse.''

Ben Hogan once worked with him and helped him lower his handicap to 4 for a while.

''He might have been the only one Hogan ever gave a lesson to,'' former PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman said with a laugh Monday as he reminisced about Hope after hearing of his death Sunday night.

Hope was golf's great ambassador, doing more to popularize the game than any non-champion except perhaps President Eisenhower. It's probably a tossup on which of them spent more time in the White House. Hope was friends with 11 presidents and played golf with six poking fun at them all.

The most distinguished foursome to tee off at his Desert Classic was in 1995 when he joined President Clinton and former presidents George Bush and Gerald Ford.

''Clinton had the best score, Ford the most errors and Bush the most hits,'' Hope said. ''Me, I cheated better than ever.''

Ford, who conked more than a few spectators over the years with errant shots, was ''the man who made golf a contact sport,'' Hope quipped.

Everywhere Hope traveled, even visiting troops from World War II to the Gulf War, he had a golf club in hand. A gig on TV with NASA astronauts inspired Alan Shepard to sneak a golf club to the moon.

''Golf is my profession,'' Hope said famously. ''Show business is how I pay the bills.''

He figured he played on 2,000 courses from Bangkok to Brazil, Alaska to Australia. If there's one in heaven, he'll be teeing up with his old road buddy Bing Crosby soon enough.

Crosby had his Clambake at Pebble Beach and Hope had his Desert Classic at Palm Springs. Between them they linked Hollywood with the pros and pioneered golf on television.

Hope numbered hundreds of golfers among his friends, but he had a special friendship with Arnold Palmer. Hope brought him on his TV show after Palmer won the 1954 U.S. Amateur. Palmer won the first tournament in Palm Springs in 1960. His last PGA Tour victory came at the Hope in 1973.

''It was sad to get the news of Bob Hope's passing,'' Palmer said, ''but I think that, if he were here, he would want us to laugh and enjoy what he has given the world over the years. ...

''Bob brought golf to the public's attention. You rarely saw him on the screen or in person without a golf club in his hands. People understood how much he loved the game.''

Palmer recalled playing with him at a pro-am in Phoenix one year on a nasty day when it was ''spitting a little snow.''

''I thought Bob might want to pack it in,'' Palmer said, ''but he insisted on continuing. He shot 35 on the back nine the best I ever saw him shoot and we won the pro-am.''

Tiger Woods met Hope only once as a 2-year-old on the ''Mike Douglas Show.'' Woods, about 30 inches tall at the time, knocked in a 2-foot putt that brought a smile from Hope and applause from the audience.

''He's been tremendous, not only for golf but for our country,'' Woods said. ''He put a lot of smiles on a lot of faces and he's going to be sorely missed.''

Hope had a lifelong love affair with several sports, starting out as a boxer with the ring name ''Packy East'' for a few fights in the early 1920s. ''I was on more canvases than Picasso,'' he joked.

''The last time I got knocked right back into dancing school.''

At the opening of the fourth and current Madison Square Garden in 1968, Hope put on a pair of shorts and clowned around the ring with former heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano.

Hope used to go to the six-day bike races in the old Gardens. He was a pool hustler and once owned part of the Cleveland Indians and the Los Angeles Rams ''Both before they learned how to play their games,'' he said.

He introduced The AP All-America football team on his Christmas TV special each year.

But golf was his passion. His book, ''Confessions of a Hooker My Lifelong Love Affair with Golf,'' was on the New York Times 'best seller' list for 53 weeks.

''I get upset over a bad shot just like anyone else,'' he wrote. ''But it's silly to let the game get to you. When I miss a shot I just think what a beautiful day it is. And what pure fresh air I'm breathing. Then I take a deep breath. I have to do that. That's what gives me the strength to break the club.''

He didn't really break clubs. Mostly he took a generous number of mulligans and played on.

A few years after he hit his sixth hole-in-one in 1993 at the age of 90, his health kept him from playing as much as he would have liked. He took to strolling the airport in Palm Springs for exercise when few people were around. Asked by one surprised traveler what he was doing there, Hope quipped:

''Looking for my ball.''

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein@ap.org



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