With the PGA Tour returning to the Coachella Valley this week at The American Express, it’s worth celebrating that the tournament has been held in the desert under different names for the 63rd consecutive year.
That celebration isn’t just because the LPGA’s tournament in the desert, the Chevron Championship, leaves the desert later this spring after 51 years here. It’s worth celebrating because despite all the format changes over the past 10 years and all 13 courses used at the event since its debut in 1960, The American Express remains one of the key events not only in the desert sports scene but in the desert scene in general.
But hosting a 2022 PGA Tour event in the desert also marks another milestone. That means the PGA Tour has played in the desert for 70 consecutive years. Yes, there was another PGA Tour event in the Coachella Valley before the American Express, well before the current tournament was known as the Bob Hope Classic. That was the Thunderbird Invitational.
The 1952 Thunderbird tournament, played just a year after this course opened, wasn’t the first time big-name golfers had been raising money in the Coachella Valley. This happened during a two-day, 72-hole event in 1935 at O’Donnell Golf Club in Palm Springs. Walter Hagen played in that event, but it was Horton Smith, winner of the inaugural Masters tournament the previous year, who took the $2,000 event title.
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But since 1952, the game’s best players have continuously played a tournament in the Coachella Valley, an area that really embraced the sport when home courses emerged.
This 1952 event was unofficial for a number of reasons, partly because of the Pro-Am where professionals played side-by-side with amateurs, and partly because it was just a 36-hole affair. Jim Ferrier and Dr. Cary Middlecoff tied the win at 10-under par for 36 holes. But before you say it didn’t have to have been a real touring event, consider that the field also included Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, Jimmy Demaret and Julius Boros. Yes, Dutch Harrison’s win in the Pro-Am division and the fuss over the Calcutta betting might have been bigger stories, but it was the start of a long history for the desert and the PGA Tour.
The 1953 Thunderbird Invitational is not listed among Demaret’s 31 official PGA Tour wins. But he won the 54-hole event, unofficial as it was. By 1954 the Thunderbird event was official, still with the Pro-Am. The first two official events were won by players that today’s golf fans may not remember, Fred Hass and Shelley Mayfield. Demaret won again in 1956 and 1957 and then watched Ken Venturi win in 1958 on his home course in the desert.
The king takes over the tournament
Neither of these golfers ever won the tournament that spawned from the Thunderbird Invitational, although Demaret lost a playoff at the 1964 Palm Springs Golf Classic. But the player who won the 1959 Thunderbird tournament cemented the ties of the desert’s two PGA Tour events. That was Arnold Palmer, of course.
Palmer won the 1959 Thunderbird tournament with a final round of 62 to overtake Demaret and Venturi. Palmer was the reigning Masters champion at the time and was destined to become the desert’s most popular golfer and part-time resident.
When the Thunderbird tournament fell victim to a $15,000 purse and Thunderbird residents wondered why they were the only ones to lose their golf course for a week during the tournament, a new tournament called the Palm Springs Golf Classic was launched called to life. Most of the people behind the Thunderbird tournament were involved, as was the course itself. But now it’s been five days, four courses and a new desert thrill.
And then there was Palmer, who won the event in 1960 and 1962 and gave The King three desert wins in four years. By 1965, Hope’s name was on the tournament, and what we now know as The American Express was safe in the desert. Palmer’s titles in 1971 and 1973 made him the only golfer to win official Tour events in the desert in three different decades.
Yes, there are reasons why the connection between the Thunderbird tournament and The American Express isn’t stronger than the multi-course format that began in 1960. But the Pro-Am, notable winners, and participation from desert fans show that for 70 years, the PGA Tour has shaped desert sporting and social life. The pro-ams, the parties, the celebrities and names from Palmer to Hope to Gerald Ford are all part of desert lore.
As The American Express marks its 63rd year, with American Express as title sponsor in its third year, some may have wondered what the future of professional golf in the desert looks like. After all, the LPGA is walking away after a fairly successful five-decade run in the area, and there have been times when the PGA Tour event has wobbled, if not tumbled.
But when Tyler Dennis, president of the division that runs the regular schedule for the PGA Tour, said last fall, “We absolutely believe the Coachella Valley is the perfect place for this event,” he knew what he was talking about. This week news of an extension for American Express to 2028 means the tournament will be extended to its 69th year and the PGA Tour to 76 years in the desert.
That, in turn, should make it clear to fans that the PGA Tour will be taking place in the desert for the foreseeable future. Maybe not 70 years, but who knows. After all, 70 years is a pretty strong run for the Tour in any territory, especially in a so-called small market like the Coachella Valley.
Larry Bohannan is The Desert Sun golf author and can be reached at [email protected] or (760) 778-4633. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter at @larry_Bohannan. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Desert Sun.