My Round of Golf with Bob Hope

On a hot summer day, many years ago, I spent an afternoon with Bob Hope on the golf course.

Hope was born in 1903, and he lived to be 100. The day I met him, he was in his mid-70s, and he was still very much a part of the entertainment scene and the celebrity golf circuit.

Hope’s life and career spanned most of the 20th Century. For me, he was one of those people who had always been around. Although many in my crowd perceived him to be out of touch with our social mores, for most of his working days he was immensely popular.

I read a very thoughtful, sympathetic, and detailed book review in The New Yorker by Adam Gopnik, who confesses that, as a youngster, he had been a Hope-hater.

Hope” is the name of the biography; and it is subtitled “Entertainer of the Century.” The author, Richard Zoglin, makes the case that Hope may not have been given enough recognition for his groundbreaking work. Hope is credited with, among other things, being the originator of stand-up comedy as we know it today.

All of this brought to my mind that sunny afternoon in Hartford in the late 1970s when I spent several hours walking the links of the Wethersfield Country Club with Bob Hope and his entourage. Admittedly, it was not just Bob and me out for a stroll, or even a friendly game of golf. Bob played golf that day, but I did not. His partner that day was one of his best golfing buddies, Jerry Ford.

“Shortly after I started playing golf with Jerry Ford I thought it was time to take some lessons. Not golf lessons. First aid.”

True to form, one of Jerry’s shots whacked a spectator on the head that day. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me tell you how I came to be a part of their entourage.

In those days, I worked for a large insurance company in Bloomfield Connecticut that was one of the major sponsors of the Sammy Davis Junior Greater Hartford Open. In addition to their financial contribution, the company encouraged employees to donate their time, and gave people paid time off to volunteer at the tournament.

As it happened, my good friend Bill M was in charge of the marshals for the several-day event. Bill played soccer with me on the company team I had started, and he was a computer operator for one of the machines I programmed (an RCA 501).

One day, Bill approached me about being a marshal.

“I don’t know, Bill, I really don’t much like golf, and the idea of standing around all day directing spectator traffic just doesn’t sound like a lot of fun.”

“No, you don’t understand!” he countered. “I make the assignments, and I can make you a Roving Marshal. You just walk the course with the players and make sure no one bothers them, and you help them out if they have special requests. There really isn’t all that much to do. Believe me, there are people begging me to let them do this.”

“Okay,” I said, “I’ll give it a try.”

So that is how I came to walk the course with celebrities and top-ranked golfers. One of the golfers I accompanied that weekend was Johnny Miller. He was a year younger than I, and was probably the hottest golfer of the mid-1970s. He was also very personable and relaxed. I tried not to bother the golfers on the course, since they were trying to concentrate, but there was one shot Miller made that astounded me, and I had to comment. On one hole that had a dogleg to the left, with many trees lining the sides, I watched as the other golfers drove their tee shots as far down the fairway as they could, to be in view of the pin. Miller, on the other hand, shot straight at the (invisible) pin, which meant he hit his ball into the woods. If I had seen only the result, I would have thought that he made a very bad shot and was in trouble. But I had watched him deliberately point his body in that direction, study the trees, and he smacked the ball hard; it went straight and true.

As we walked to the next shot, I couldn’t contain myself, and asked him, “You know, it looked to me like you were deliberately shooting your ball into the woods.” He laughed, “Oh, yes! It’s a little bit risky, but not much, since the trees are pretty widely spaced. I figured there was a very good chance I’d have a clear shot to the green.” Sure enough, he did, and he picked up a stroke or two on the other golfers with his aggressive play.

On another memorable outing, I was with Lee Trevino. At the time, someone told me that Lee had been hit by lightning twice in (then) recent years. As I read his biography now, I see only one mention of that happening. In any case, it was still fresh in everyone’s minds, so it created quite a buzz (so to speak). On the day that I went out with him and his golfing partner (along with the inevitable collection of caddies, officials, marshals, and media people), the sky began to cloud up. As the sky darkened, Lee occasionally gave a worried glance skyward. Sure enough, after a couple of holes, we saw lighting flashes on the far horizon. It hadn’t started raining yet, but it was clear the storm was headed in our direction. At that point, Lee’s game fell apart. It might have been amusing to see if it hadn’t been so heart-wrenching; here was a world-class champion golfer totally unable to focus on anything but the distant rumble of thunder. His knees went wobbly, and his shots sent the ball in random directions, not necessarily anywhere near the fairway. Mercifully, after a couple of holes of terror, the announcement came over the PA that the day’s round was being cancelled and all golfers should return to the Clubhouse. Lee visibly relaxed, and he was probably inside before the announcement had been completed. It was quite a sight to see, and a poignant reminder that even these seemingly invincible athletes were, after all, just as human as the rest of us.

Ah, where was I? Oh, yes, Bob Hope. The spectators were out in force that day, and the regular marshals were doing their jobs quite efficiently, so there was very little for me to do other than to follow the golfers and their support crews. Because of the presence of the former President, there were a couple of Secret Service agents tagging along, continually scanning the crowd for possible threats. They were very formally dressed, with suits and ties, in contrast to the rest of us, who were wearing comfortable shoes and slacks and golf shirts. In my case, I had been given a nice green polo shirt that identified me as a marshal. As the temperature soared into the 80s, I felt sorry for the agents, who were obviously over-dressed. I struck up a conversation with one of them, and told him he should feel free to remove his jacket; that no one would mind, given the heat and humidity.

“I can’t!” he laughed, and opened one side of his coat to reveal a radio in the inside pocket, with a wire to his ear. On his waist was a holster containing a handgun. He then turned a bit and opened the other side of his coat to show me a set of handcuffs and a billy club. “Wow!” I said, “that’s a lot of hardware!” He smiled, “Yup. Just doin’ my job!”

It was a very enjoyable day all around, and I felt like I had a front-row seat at a Bob Hope show as he reeled off one wisecrack after another. He would deliver his one-liners for maximum effect, amidst a crush of onlookers, and not so much along the way to the next shot. At the time, I couldn’t help thinking that he was trying too hard; that it must have been difficult for him to feel he had to live up to his reputation as a comedian, rather than just relaxing and enjoying a day on the links.

I was rather taken aback, then, to read in Adam Gopnik’s review that

He became a cue-card comedian—“Stay on the cards, kid,” he warned the improvisational young Jonathan Winters—and could be seen to be reading off them even when you wouldn’t think he had to. Even when he was playing golf with C.E.O.s, his writers would provide him with one-liners.

So, I had thought I was seeing a genuinely funny personality, even if it did seem a bit strained to me, as if he were joking because he knew it was expected of him. And now I find that it was just a continuation of his long-running performance. I wonder if the man ever got to relax, or even knew how.

And then, about halfway through the course, as if on cue, came the Jerry Ford errant ball. He had managed to get fairly close to the green, but unfortunately his ball was in a sand bunker. He sized up the distance to the pin, and gave the ball a good whack. It soared high into the air and well past the green, into the crowd on the other side. The startled spectators scrambled to get out of the way, but in such a thick crowd of fans, it was inevitable that someone was to get hit. Sure enough, the ball landed squarely on some poor fellow’s forehead and bounced back in the direction of the green. I’m not sure how they ruled on that shot, but I do remember the President dropping his club and rushing over to the scene of the accident. “I’m so sorry!” he exclaimed. “Are you all right?” The man was a little stunned, but then began smiling as the President offered to autograph the ball for him.

All in all, my afternoon with Bob Hope and Jerry Ford was a very delightful one, and the memories of it are vivid for me, nearly forty years later.

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