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FIRST PERSON

`The Great Brown Hope'

Playing a round with George Lopez, the new face of celebrity golf, means nine holes of mostly funny bounces

January 17, 2007|Glenn F. Bunting | Times Staff Writer

Cruising down the fairway in an electric cart, George Lopez is behind the wheel fidgeting with not one, not two, but three mobile phones.

He grabs a sleek Sliver and punches up his favorite iTunes play list. All of a sudden he's swaying to the Eagles' classic "Hotel California."

"Hope you don't mind," Lopez tells me. "This is how I relax."

Do I mind? I'm at the exclusive Lakeside Golf Club ("No Cellular Phones On The Golf Premises") on a glorious December day playing against a famous comedian who is busting my gut with one-liners.

Lopez is the star of his own TV sitcom and author of the best-selling autobiography "Why You Crying?" But the "Great Brown Hope," as he calls himself, is taking on a new role as Ambassador of Golf, a sport long perceived as elitist and lily white.

Today, Lopez debuts as host of the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic in Palm Desert. Tournament organizers hope Lopez restores some pizazz and star power to the event. He joins a select group of entertainers -- Hope, Bing Crosby, Jackie Gleason, Andy Williams, Sammy Davis Jr. and Glen Campbell -- whose names have been a part of official tournaments on the PGA Tour.

"This could never have happened five years ago," Lopez says. "Nobody really knew or cared that I played golf."

Lopez first swung a club as a child growing up without parents in a San Fernando Valley barrio. He recalls smacking lemons with a rusty seven-iron in his grandmother's backyard.

He played his first round on Christmas Day 1981 with a friend at El Cariso Golf Course in Sylmar. "We spent five hours talking and laughing. We drank a couple of beers. And we couldn't wait to go back out there....

"I haven't put a club down since. Golf is the tissue that holds my body together. I couldn't survive without it."

An 11 handicap, Lopez shot a career-low 78 last month at Monterey Peninsula Country Club. Despite his hectic schedule, he plays about 100 rounds a year.

In 1998, Lopez learned that he had a congenital kidney disease and would need a transplant by age 45. He made it to 44. Against incredible odds, the perfect donor was living in the same household. On April 19, 2005, Ann Serrano Lopez gave her husband one of her kidneys.

Lopez calls it "a Chicano's worst nightmare."

"Can you imagine? Most guys don't want to hold their wife's purse, and I got my wife's kidney inside me."

Lopez says that Ann supports his golf addiction. "She understands what it means to me to play."

I suggest getting Ann golf lessons so the couple can share quality time on the links, but Lopez begs off. For him, golf is an escape from the pressures of work and home.

"I love my wife exactly for the equestrian that she is trying to be," he says.

Lopez will play in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am next month with partner Jesper Parnevik. In his first appearance at the AT&T three years ago, Lopez finished third with Parnevik.

"Me and Parnevik really like each other and we look forward to seeing one another one week a year," Lopez says. "It's like 'Brokeback Mountain' without the tent scene."

Lopez and I begin our round at Lakeside on the back nine to avoid a logjam on the first tee.

Hole No. 10: Clad in neatly pressed black slacks and a blue-and-white striped golf shirt underneath a black vest, Lopez pulls out a Bobby Jones driver given to him by club designer Jesse Ortiz.

"Let's play the white tees [6,272 yards]," he says. "The blues [6,539 yards] are brutal."

He pulls his opening drive left onto the 17th fairway. At least he's in the short grass. I push mine wide right deep into the rough.

After we get to the green, Lopez stubs his putter and advances the ball halfway to the hole. He uncharacteristically takes three putts for a double-bogey six.

Despite several poor shots during the round, Lopez never loses his cool or utters so much as a mild profanity. He says it took years to learn patience and respect for the game.

"In the beginning, I was a nut. I would leave the course. I'd be like, 'I ain't playing no more.' ... But that doesn't make you a better man. You've got to get in there and find out what's wrong."

No. 11: I attract Lopez's attention by donning a black hat with an embroidered "G-Lo" logo purchased from his website. He says he wishes he could get one big enough to fit his head.

No. 12: G-Lo suggests we aim at the NBC Universal office tower in the distance above the left fairway. We both hit our balls into the right rough. Lopez finds his Titleist ProV-1 near a bush and takes a free drop. We both get double-bogey sixes.

No. 13: G-Lo smacks his drive dead left on a short par four. I pound my five-wood in the fairway, leaving a 70-yard wedge shot to the green.

After a cursory search for his errant drive, Lopez drops another ball in the fairway next to mine. He hits a wedge to the right, chips onto the green and sinks a 10-footer.

I ask G-Lo his score. "A Chicano five," he tells me. And what is that exactly?

"Don't count the one you lost," he explains. I count it and give him an "Anglo six."

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