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by Rex Hoggard

Palm Desert, Calif.

There was a time, not quite a lifetime ago, that it wasn’t a PGA Tour season until the Coachella Valley trotted out the Bob Hope, a parade of tricked-up golf carts and four of the easiest courses not dotted with windmills and clowns’ mouths.

It was a time when birdies and Hope one-liners flowed with equal ease. There were ravishing Hope girls (John Daly married one) and the regal Hope ball and, for any player that mattered, a sense of renewed optimism. The Hope was spring training with a smile.

For as long as many players can remember, the Hope, Bing Crosby’s Clambake at Pebble Beach and Doral were on every player’s early-season “must-play” list. But those days, like affordable real estate in Southern California and three-shot par 5s on the PGA Tour, are long gone.

“Pebble is almost a must-skip,” Bob Estes said. “The rounds at Pebble Beach take so long it’s a joke. Guys are going to avoid that like the plague.”

If the field gathered for last week’s Hope is any indication, the California desert isn’t packing in players anymore either. This year’s Hope featured only two of the top 20 players in the Official World Golf Ranking. Vijay Singh, Chris DiMarco and John Daly – who combined have 18 starts at the Hope – swapped deserts for the guaranteed money at the PGA European Tour’s Abu Dhabi Championship.

But a weak field was just the ice in tournament director Mike Milthorpe’s half-empty glass. Milthorpe was stunned recently to learn that after 42 years on network TV, his once-grand event will be shown exclusively on The Golf Channel starting in 2007.

Wonder what Mr. Hope would have thought of that? “Golf is a lesson in humility,” the energetic comedian once said. Indeed.

The final haymaker for Milthorpe came Thursday morning. A strong, chilly wind whipped through the valley, sending scores at the Classic Club – the event’s first-year host course – soaring and players through the roof.

“Guys come to the Hope to build confidence,” Estes said. “Guys don’t come here to get beat up. We’re coming out of hibernation.”

The Arnold Palmer-designed Classic Club is big and burly and at times buffeted by high winds that are stronger than those at the three other courses in the Hope rota, which are tucked closer to the Santa Rosa Mountains. The Classic Club is the anti-Hope, more TPC than TLC, with plenty of room for cash-generating corporate tents and concessions.

Veterans who have become comfortable with the Hope’s pitch-and-putt ways were particularly weary of the Classic Club. This is the Hope, where David Duval awkwardly fist-pumped his way to a 59 in 1999 and even-par rounds can ruin any player’s day.

“So what if guys shoot 61? Who cares? It’s one week out of the year for crying out loud,” said John Cook, a two-time Hope winner. “Does it have to be the U.S. Open every single week? Indian Wells had so much charm and it was such a fun little golf course. Yeah, you go around and play bad and shoot 67, so what? You’ve got the Torrey Pines and Rivieras coming up. They’re going to beat your brains in.”

But Palmer’s 7,305-yard monster is simply the problem du jour for the Hope. The Classic Club was donated to the tournament, which makes its inclusion in the rota a financial necessity.

The real crime here is the loss of charm that seems to have been left behind at Indian Wells Country Club and Tamarisk Country Club, two of the event’s original, quirky digs.

“It has a lot different feel. It’s lost its traditional appeal,” Paul Azinger said. “When a viewer tunes in and sees the last hole at Indian Wells, he recognizes it. The reason Augusta is so great is because the viewer knows every hole because they’ve watched it for years. To me, that’s part of the charm.”

In a bygone era, a golf-starved public watched the Hope almost as much for the celebrities as for the players. But even that has changed. Instead of the “Chairman of the Board” or Bing, we get boy-band reunions and oversized football players who made a living specializing in pain, not laughter.

The Hope isn’t alone in its slide into 21st-century conformity. Pebble Beach is less Clambake than corporate shill, and Jackie Gleason’s old soiree at Inverrary (now the Honda Classic) has turned into South Florida’s best way to hawk high-end real estate.

“Chrysler has been with us since 1986 and Hope’s name remains part of this event,” Milthorpe said. “The Hope family didn’t want what happened with the Bing Crosby to happen here.”

Maybe that’s why change in the desert has been such a bitter nostalgic pill to swallow. The Hope, for better or worse, has been a Tour anachronism, clinging to the past like few other events.

“Things were going to change after Mr. Hope died (in 2003), no doubt,” Cook said. “But I don’t know why it has to. Who says that because he’s gone it has to change? It’s so much about the big purses and the big money. That’s a shame.”

It has been more than two decades since Cook made his first start at the Desert Classic, but as a newly married Tour rookie he vividly remembers how special that event was.

“Played with Robert Goulet in my fourth round,” Cook said. “My mother-in-law just adored Robert Goulet. She was thinking every week was going to be like this.”

No crooners on Cook’s side of the draw this time around, just corporate types and a beastly golf course. Change may be inevitable, but that doesn’t make it any easier to stomach.

“The charm is lost,” Cook said. “I hate to see that.”

As the event’s long-time smiling host might say, thanks for the memories.

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