Greg Norman’s participation at this week’s Humana Challenge in La Quinta, California, is one of several signs that this year’s makeover of the pro-am celebrity event has already achieved success.
Previously known as the Bob Hope Classic, the US$5.6 million tournament had lost much of its luster in recent years and struggled to attract a quality field, with many players unhappy with its 90-hole format and some of its venues.
This year’s edition, the first held in partnership with the William J. Clinton Foundation established by former US president Bill Clinton, has been cut to 72 holes and boasts world No. 8 Dustin Johnson and twice champion Phil Mickelson among its entrants.
Also competing is former world No. 1 Norman, who has not played in the event since 1986 and had no plans to return until he received a timely telephone call from Clinton.
“He asked me if I would come and play, and I said: ‘Yes,’” Australian Norman, popularly known as the Great White Shark, told reporters at La Quinta on Wednesday while preparing for the opening round. “Simple as that. We had a very frank conversation about the opportunities and the format, and how can the tournament be resurrected, and he was obviously leaning towards doing what he’s done. The Bob Hope was such an iconic event ... from the celebrities, from the sponsorship stand point, from the people in Palm Springs and this area. We hate to see events like that disappear.”
First held in 1960 when golfing great Arnold Palmer clinched the inaugural title, the Bob Hope Classic was a pro-am celebrity event played over five rounds and four different venues.
Its list of winners includes heavyweights such as Jack Nicklaus, Billy Casper and Johnny Miller, while Bing Crosby, Burt Lancaster, Frank Sinatra and Kirk Douglas have lit up its glittering cast of celebrities over the years.
Much has changed, though, since then.
Long-time tournament host Bob Hope, a four-handicapper who ranks as one of Hollywood’s greatest golfers, made way for comedian George Lopez and the number of “A-list” celebrities waned.
The initial rotation of venues — Thunderbird, Tamarisk, Bermuda Dunes and Indian Wells — was entirely replaced by courses more suited to the high-tech equipment and power hitters of the modern game.
The Arnold Palmer-designed Classic Club took over from Indian Wells in 2006, but its location in a veritable wind tunnel made it an unpopular venue for many of the players, among them Mickelson, who stopped competing in the tournament after 2007.
“From a player’s perspective, he [Clinton] was very astute in asking the top players what their opinions were of the event,” said Norman, who will play in the company of Clinton in tomorrow’s third round. “Modifying it [the tournament] is step No. 1 of elevating the structure of getting the name players that you want to get here on a consistent level. It’s a process to build it up.”
This week’s event will be staged at just three venues, the Nicklaus Private and Palmer Private courses at PGA West and the hosting La Quinta Country Club.
Johnson, world No. 11 Matt Kuchar and 15th-ranked Mickelson head the field — all three of them making their first appearances of the year on the USPGA Tour.
Long-hitting Venezuelan Jhonattan Vegas will defend the title he won last year after a playoff with Americans Bill Haas and Gary Woodland.