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100 Years of Sinatra: The golf connection
December 10, 2015
By Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM
- Frank Sinatra's passion for golf lasted decades. (Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images)
Frank Sinatra wasn’t a great golfer. Some references had him at a 24 handicap. The late Bob Rosburg, the former TOUR pro turned TV analyst, told Golf magazine that Sinatra “liked to be good at everything, and he was not a great player.”
His personal valet, George Jacobs, also told the magazine that Sinatra could “hit it pretty well off the tee but that was about it. He would hack it around, having fun, you know?”
Having fun, especially as the leader of the Rat Pack, would seem very Sinatra-like.
This Saturday, Dec. 12, marks what would have been Sinatra’s 100th birthday. A year-long “100 Years of Sinatra” celebration reaches its official high point.
To mark the occasion, here are a few golf-related tidbits related to Ol’ Blue Eyes (and we promise to avoid all “My Way” references. Except that one.)
THE SINATRA INVITATIONAL
Just a few years after Bing Crosby started up his namesake tournament at Pebble Beach – and before Bob Hope or Andy Williams added their names to other tournaments in California – Sinatra hosted his own TOUR-sanctioned event, the Frank Sinatra Invitational, in November of 1963 at the Canyon Club in Palm Springs.
Sinatra was a resident, and his Rat Pack crew as well as other celebrities usually holed up at the club. The mixture of TOUR pros and celebs fit the party lifestyle, with a black-tie affair following the four days of competition.
Another Frank – Frank Beard – won his first TOUR event over 79 other competitors, claiming the $9,000 first prize (actress Jill St. John, who was dating Sinatra at the time, handed him the winning check). Just 24, Beard would win 10 more times on TOUR, and he probably received more attention for those other wins that he did the first one.
That’s because the focus that week was on the happenings outside the ropes, particularly the nightly parties and the Rat Pack lifestyle.
Even so, whenever Sinatra saw Beard, he would refer to him as “Francis” and call him the guy who “won my golf tournament.”
And as to why Sinatra’s tournament lasted just one year? No official reason exists, but two years later, Hope officially became the namesake of the Desert Classic (he had been the unofficial host for years), and the birth of one of the biggest celebrity events on TOUR was complete.
RAT PACK TOUR EVENTS Frank Sinatra Frank Sinatra Invitational 1963 Sammy Davis Jr. Sammy Davis Jr. Greater Hartford Open 1973-88 Dean Martin Dean Martin Tucson Open 1972-75
During that 1963 tournament, 150 deep-pocketed amateur players were given a custom-made putter designed by Sinatra's good friend, former TOUR pro and noted golf-club maker Toney Penna.
Sinatra originally wanted the putter made of solid gold, but Penna told him the club would be too heavy and unusable. Instead, Penna – using a the shape of a popular Tommy Armour putter – used forged steel and copper-plating. The MacGregor IMG-5 heel-shafted putter had Sinatra’s signature and a small caricature of his likeness engraved on the club sole.
Because it was a limited edition and never sold to the public, the putters eventually became highly valued by golf club collectors, especially in Japan since the same style putter was used by World Golf Hall of Famer Jumbo Ozaki.
Noted putter designer Bobby Grace was one of the first to recognize their value; in the late 1980s, he put an ad in Golf Digest magazine offering to buy the putters for $3,000-$5,000. He eventually bought six of them, then in 1990 sold several in Japan for more than $10,000 each. He put one in a shadowbox along with some other Sinatra collectibles, and sold that for $21,000.
With that kind of money being spent on the putters, forgeries out of California eventually hit the market. Thanks to his knowledge of the real putters, Grace has helped authenticate many of them.
The value of the putters has fallen, although they are still being sold for four figures – if you can find one available. Earlier this year, Green Jacket Auctions offered up the putter believed to be owned by Bing Crosby, with bids exceeding $2,000.
Grace told PGATOUR.COM this week he still has one in his collection but he’s not planning to sell it.
“It will always be, to me, one of the best collectibles,” Grace said.
SINATRA AND HOGAN
In July of 1953, Sinatra made an overseas trip to Scotland. Battling a career slump – he had been dropped by his record label the year before, although he had already found a new home with Capitol Records – and his popularity waning as he moved away from his teen-dream years, the series of concerts in Glasgow, Ayr and Dundee came at a particularly crucial time.
In fact, the Dundee concerts might have been one of his lowest points. At one show, he played to a crowd of approximately 500 in the 3,000-seat Caird Hall, inviting those in the cheap seats to move down closer to the stage.
But the trip wasn’t a total loss.
While in Scotland, Sinatra found time to attend The Open Championship in Carnoustie. He wanted to support Ben Hogan, who was making his first – and only – start at The Open Championship. Hogan had won the first two majors that season and Sinatra, having been bitten by the golf bug, was curious to see if Hogan could win the third leg.
Sinatra was on hand Thursday morning to see Hogan shoot 71 in the second round (the last two rounds were played on Friday) and declared that “all America is rooting for Hogan.”
Perhaps the Hogan magic rubbed off on Sinatra.
Three months later, the movie “From Here to Eternity” was released. It would win eight Oscars, including Sinatra as supporting actor. (Parts of the movie, incidentally, were filmed at the beach near Waialae Country Club, host course of the Sony Open in Hawaii.) Sinatra’s first Capitol record, “Songs for Young Lovers,” was also released, yielding several classics amidst critical acclaim.
With his career revived, Sinatra was now starting the next phase of his legendary career.
Meanwhile, his admiration for Hogan never wavered. According to Golf Digest, Sinatra once hired Hogan to be the teaching pro at his club in Palm Springs.
Sinatra’s home – or Compound, as he preferred to call it – in Palm Springs was near one of the fairways at Tamarisk Country Club.
Across the way was the home of another entertainer, Zeppo Marx and his wife, Barbara.
That’s where Sinatra first saw her.
Eventually, Barbara's marriage to Marx dissolved (she was 26 years younger), and she started dating Sinatra. They eventually married in 1976, and she remains the host of his charity event (see next note).
CELEBRITIES & CHARITY
There is another golf tournament that currently has Sinatra’s name attached to it.
The Frank Sinatra Celebrity Invitational is scheduled for Feb. 18-20 next year at Fantasy Springs Resort Casino in Indio, California. The two-day celebrity-amateur tournament, which will be played on the Eagle Falls course, was founded in 1988.
Barbara Sinatra, Sinatra’s fourth (and final) wife, is the hostess (along with co-host Joe Mantegna, the actor currently starring in TV’s Criminal Minds), and the event raises funds for the Barbara Sinatra Children’s Center at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, California. So far, it has raised more than $9 million for victims of physical, sexual and emotional abuse.
Not surprising, along with the golf, there is a fashion show and a black tie gala, along with three nights of parities. Sinatra, who died in 1998, would have approved.
GOLF CART ACCIDENT
One last sort-of golf-related Sinatra story …
For more than a decade, Sinatra was connected with the Sands hotel in Vegas (he first started performing there in October of 1953). That’s where he liked to gamble, and if he suffered losses, the hotel would forgive them. After all, Sinatra was a draw, and hotel management knew that other high-rollers loved to rub shoulders with Sinatra in the same casino.
But after Howard Hughes bought the hotel in the mid-1960s, he decided to limit Sinatra’s credit line. Sinatra didn’t know about it until he tried to establish credit one night when he was entertaining some Apollo astronauts. He promptly got into a fight with one of the hotel’s executives.
Afterwards, he stormed off with his wife Mia Farrow. As they headed out of the hotel, he spotted a golf cart that the hotel utilized to shuttle around VIPs. The two jumped in the cart and an angry Sinatra stomped on the accelerator.
“We were headed straight for the shiny plate-glass window,” Farrow said in the book, “Sinatra: Behind the Legend.” “I knew it was pointless to say a word. In the final instant, we swerved and smashed sidelong into the window.”
Neither Sinatra nor his wife was harmed, but the damage to his relationship with the Sands was irreparable. He soon jumped ship to Caesar’s Palace.
No word on the fate of the golf cart.