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BILL DWYRE

Bob Hope Classic still in rough but manages to play out of trouble

The golf tournament in the desert near Palm Springs struggles to make ends meet and attract quality fields and TV viewers, but keeps going through all the weirdness. Jhonattan Vegas' victory Sunday in a very strange playoff fits with the theme.

January 23, 2011|Bill Dwyre
  • Jhonattan Vegas and his caddie discuss a tee shot on the fifth hole during the final round of the Bob Hope Classic on Sunday. Vegas would win the tournament on the second playoff hole.
Jhonattan Vegas and his caddie discuss a tee shot on the fifth hole during… (Jeff Gross / Getty Images )

From La Quinta — As it turns out, the future of the Bob Hope Classic golf tournament is about as easy to figure as this year's playoff.

When Jhonattan Vegas won Sunday on the second playoff hole, he did so by first hitting his tee shot into the water. PGA Tour statisticians will be digging deep this week to see how often, if ever, that has happened.

This was after Vegas, who'd had no bogeys all day and had only to make par on the par-five 18th in regulation, drove the ball into a fairway bunker and missed his 7-foot 7-inch par putt. That meant defending champion Bill Haas joined Vegas and Gary Woodland, who has played fewer than 30 tour events in his career, in a sudden-death playoff.

It figured that Haas would win. In this tournament of mostly little-known players, people had at least heard of Haas. His father, Jay, remains among the top competitors on the Champions Tour. And young Haas had been here and done that last year.

But little about this event is certain these days, and Haas furthered that thought by sending his drive into the right rough on the first playoff hole and making par. Woodland and Vegas birdied, and that sent Haas to the sidelines and Woodland and Vegas to the second playoff hole at No. 10. That's a 453-yard par four, mostly over water, and Vegas clanked his drive off the rocks and in.

Game over? Not at the Hope.

Woodland hit a lousy second shot into the trap, a lousy third one out and made a lousy run at his par putt. Vegas had recovered with his third shot (after the penalty) to within 12 feet 8 inches of the pin and rolled it in for par and one of the more unusual playoff wins ever on the tour.

It is somehow fitting that it happened here.

The Hope was once a tour flagship event. Movie stars and celebrities showed up in droves. TV loved the blue skies and palm trees, and so did large TV audiences, much of them watching from snow piles back East. The Hope and the Rose Bowl may be responsible for 20% of the current population of California.

But times change. Players don't know Bob Hope from the Hope Diamond. The tour got fat with sponsorship dollars that made purses bigger elsewhere. Those bigger purses gave top players an excuse to skip the desert in January.

Many hated playing four rounds with amateurs, anyway. Then, a few years ago, when the Hope committee moved the tournament center to a wind tunnel also known as the Classic Club, it was the final straw for the remaining faithful, including Phil Mickelson, who was a rarity in that he loved the byplay with the amateurs and played well despite that distraction.

Now the event is back in a more geographically sensible four-course rotation, but the players do not come. This year's tournament attracted four of the top 50 players in the world rankings — No. 13 Matt Kuchar, No. 33 Bubba Watson, No. 45 Stewart Cink and No. 49 Martin Laird. Mickelson was in Abu Dhabi, where he finished 37th and certainly received a nice appearance fee.

Vegas got $900,000 of the $5-million purse for his first tour win, and while that sounds spectacular to the common man, the purse size is among the smaller on the tour. Only seven events offer less prize money, four of them in autumn, after the Tour Championship has ended and top players have gone home. The Hope is one of just three tour events without a title sponsor, along with the Reno-Tahoe Open and the Heritage at Hilton Head.

Still, the people who run this event, led by President and Chairman John Foster, are both stubborn and tenacious. They have lived through the end of Chrysler's sponsorship in the aftermath of bankruptcy and government bailout. They have weathered rumors that their dates would be changed.

But the Bob Hope soldiers on, to the credit of Foster and his team. Foster, always composed when asked about the potholes, said Sunday, with a wry smile, "We'll be here next year."

Part of his certainty is that his unique format pays lots of the bills that sponsors pay elsewhere. The Hope charges between $8,000 and $25,000 per amateur to play four days, depending on the player's status. The $25,000 players are part of an elite group willing to pay that for the benefit of the Hope charities. With 384 amateurs — about 340 paying and the rest celebrities — the tournament generates close to its $5 million purse on the amateurs alone.

Still, bigger-name players and a title sponsor are needed, and Sunday brought yet another wrinkle. The Desert Sun reported that former President Bill Clinton, an avid golfer, may be interested in using his leverage and that of his foundation to get involved in getting a sponsor and players. The details are unclear, and Foster's body language on the topic pointed to caution.

But can you imagine Clinton calling Mickelson to play in the Hope, and Mickelson saying no?

That may be a work in progress, much like the Bob Hope Classic itself.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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