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Celebrities cashing in on the golf course

Image: Bill Murray
Actor Bill Murray tees off from the 2nd tee of Spyglass Hill Golf Course during the first round of last year's AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. He ranks No. 13 on the celebrity golf list. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

They swarmed the Phoenix area this past weekend to see who would emerge as the best. Giants in their field, they entertained fans and battled opponents.

Players in the Super Bowl? Far from it. From an NFL Charities Celebrity Golf Classicto the first Super Skins Celebrity Golf Classic, celebrity golfers roamed across desert courses.

No one is saying Britney Spears is going to qualify for the Masters, but celebrities are increasingly becoming a major force on the golf circuit.

Just consider the burgeoning numbers of celebrity golf "classics":

  • In Austin, Texas, the first Beyond the Lights Celebrity Golf Classic will take place in March, to be hosted by "Friday Night Light" stars Kyle Chandler and Brad Leland.
  • The inaugural Halle Berry Celebrity Golf Classic is slated for April.
  • Even one-time bad-boy rock ‘n’ roller Alice Cooper raises money through the Alice Cooper Celebrity AM Golf Tournament, whose 12th incarnation is scheduled for May.

Mainstream tournaments are injecting the power of celebrity into their events. At next week's Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles, The Beach Boys will play (their hits, not golf) at an event before the first round. Guests will be able to watch a performance by Natalie Cole at the Getty Museum and, a few days later, attend a concert by Seal. More than 20 celebrities have been invited to the PGA Tour event, and the whole week kicks off with the Michael Douglas and Friends Celebrity Golf tournament, a one-day gathering Sunday that will be played at Riviera for the first time.

The Northern Trust Open “is sandwiched between the Grammys and the Academy Awards. We want to put this as a destination point for celebrities,” explained Kelly Mannard, senior vice president of global marketing at Northern Trust. “We’ve had a warm reception from the celebrity crowd. Some have approached us saying they’d love to get engaged (with the tournament).”

Who would even care about the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am if it were not for comedian Bill Murray’s antics? Though he is not playing this year because of a reported scheduling conflict, people have tuned in annually just to see what he will do next. From pulling women into sand traps to chugging wine from a bottle to trying to spinning a hula-hoop around his hips, Murray has infused needed attention into a minor tourney.

Which helps answer the question: Why are celebrities, who are often considered brash, so popular in the reserved golf business? In 2007, AT&T Pebble Beach lured more than 4.3 million viewers for its final round on CBS – a bigger Sunday turnout for all but two golf tournaments in the first three months last year, prompted in part by celebrity participation. Money generated can be substantial: The ‘07 ESPY Celebrity Golf Classic raised about $1.3 million.

Celebrities have long happily immersed themselves in golf. Crooner and habitual golfer Bing Crosby lent his name to what's now called the AT&T Pebble Beach (it originally started six hours south in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. in 1937). The Bob Hope Chrysler Classic was played again in La Quinta, Calif. in January. Later this month, the Frank Sinatra Countrywide Celebrity Invitational will tee off at Indian Wells Country Club in California. Sponsors are happy to pay for celebrity access – packages at the Sinatra tourney go for up to $10,000, which includes a playing spot with the likes of Pat Boone or Joe Mantegna.

The media is taking notice. Golf Digest publishes an annual list of Hollywood’s 100 top golfers. There is even a Web site dedicated to the genre, www.celebritygolf.com. An area is set aside for frequent updates of celebrity golf news, including the top Hollywood celebrity handicaps (Hugh Grant ranks 16th at 7.4) and video golf tips from actor Alan Thicke and others.

Of course, not all celebrity involvement in golf has ended successfully. “Caddyshack” actress Cindy Morgan arranged a 2006 celebrity tournament in Illinois to raise money for military families. Problem was, celebrities left early, no money was raised for charity and Morgan is being sued for allegedly not paying an appearance fee to Hamilton Mitchell, a caddy in the popular golf film. No one was singing “I’m Alright” after that celebrity golf venture.