Home » Feature Story

Celebrity golf tour: Nothing funny about a $2-million purse

Tim McDonaldBy Tim McDonald,

You've watched some of these celebrity golf tournaments. Admit it. You probably tuned in out of curiosity, not to see golf at its highest level, but you tuned in.

There's something interesting and mildly voyeuristic about seeing celebrities, especially celebrity athletes, playing a game that's so difficult for the rest of us.

What a lot of people might not know is that there is an organized celebrity tour, involving some fairly serious prize money. It's called the Celebrity Players Tour, and it's dominated, not surprisingly, by celebrity athletes. Rick Rhoden has won around $2 million, for example.

One of the movers behind the Celebrity Players Tour is comedian Tom Dreesen, who used to open at concerts and clubs for Frank Sinatra. Dreesen has also appeared on the late-night talk shows, particularly with David Letterman. He recorded a comedy album, "That White Boy's Crazy."

Q: How did the whole celebrity golfer thing get started?

A: Bing Crosby brought celebrities into golf at the old Pebble Beach tournament, then Bob Hope took it to the next level. Then a guy named Jim Karvellas, a former announcer for the NBA, came along. He started the Celebrity Golf Association. Prior to that, celebrities never got paid, they just went and performed. Guys like me and John Denver and Glenn Campbell were always asked to get up and perform at these PGA events.

Jim Karvellas came up with the idea: Why not start a celebrity golf tour where celebrities would actually play for prize money? He sold the idea to NBC and they started the Lake Tahoe event 16 or 17 years ago.

It became basketball, football, baseball, hockey, tennis and show business people that were 10-handicap or below. I was the only comedian at the time. Then Karvellas said he didn't want it just to be athletes, he wanted it to encompass celebrities from all walks of life.

There aren't a lot of celebrities who are 10 handicaps or below but I helped him get a lot of people. We did a few events, and then the players decided they wanted to break away, most of them being athletes. They wanted to own their images and likeness. So they broke away and formed what we now call the Celebrity Players Tour. These guys were hungry and wanted to play more golf. I've been on the board since day one. I'm now vice president and one of the founders.

Q: Who are some of the celebrities on the tour?

A: We play in about 13 cities a year and we have celebrities from Dan Quayle to John Elway, from Tom Dreesen to Michael Jordan. We have 42 hall of famers, we have gold medalists, Emmy and Grammy award winners from Smokey Robinson to the Gatlin brothers.

Q: Are you a serious "tour?"

A: We are not a golf tour. We're a corporate hospitality entertainment tour. The first thing you must do is define your product in the marketplace. If you say you are a golf tour, then your competition is the PGA Tour, LPGA and so forth. You can't compete. But, if you say you're a corporate hospitality entertainment tour, they can't compete with us.

We can do things they can't do. For example, at our pairings party, all 60 celebrities are there, and they schmooze - they don't congregate in one corner. They schmooze with the corporate people. We go play golf, we get to know your names, we're corporate friendly, we tell you stories, etc. When we're finished with that, we go to a pro-am party. All 60 are there and they sit with the men and women they play golf with and then on stage you'll see Smokey Robinson, Frankie Avalon, me, and others. Johnny Bench will get up and sing a song.

Then I bring all 60 guys on stage and we do a closing number, "God Bless America," or "America the Beautiful." At the pro tournaments, you're lucky to get a pro to walk by your tent for $10,000 let alone come inside and talk to you."

Q: Are these celebrities under contract?

A: We're all part of the tour and we have bylaws - you have to come to these functions. Some tournaments we play low gross, and in that case only five or six guys can possibly win, like Rick Rhoden or Andy Van Slyke. But when we play team play, two- or three-man teams, everybody has a chance to win, even the last place (team) will always win something. I call it an appearance fee. You might win $1,500, that pays your expenses. You pay your own flight, we take care of the hotel."

Q: I would imagine it's easy to find athletes with handicaps of 10 or lower. What about non-athlete celebrities?

A: It's hard. I'm introduced as the leading money winner among stand-up comedians on the tour. Next question is: how many are there? I'm the only one. We can exempt them. If Clint Eastwood wants to play, or Kevin Costner, or, say, Charles Barkley.

Q: Who's the best non-athlete celebrity golfer?

A: Jack Wagner, the soap opera guy. He's a scratch golfer. He's won two of our events. He's beaten Rhoden twice. Travel and Leisure Golf named me third on their top-10 celebrity golfers of all time. (Note: others on the list include: James Garner, Howard Hughes, Randolph Scott, Randy and Dennis Quaid, Hope, Crosby, Dean Martin and Chris O'Donnell).

Q: How about the worst?

A: Charles Barkley. His swing is terrifying to look at. You have to turn your back.

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment