Wednesday 26 June 2019

Dermot Gilleece: 'Sinatra never forgot the first, last and only winner of his golf tournament'

While the stars enjoyed a lavish banquet, Frank Beard celebrated with a humble cheeseburger

Next Wednesday is the103rd anniversary of Frank Sinatra's birth
Next Wednesday is the103rd anniversary of Frank Sinatra's birth

Dermot Gilleece

At this time of year back in 1963, serious post-mortems were taking place in the wake of a notable addition to the PGA Tour schedule. As it happened, there would be no repeat of the Frank Sinatra Open Invitational, though it produced a story worthy of the host.

It seems appropriate to recall the details, given that next Wednesday is the 103rd anniversary of his birth. The star was 20 years dead last May.

We're told that the November event, at the Canyon Club in Palm Springs, California, was aimed at bringing together the leading tournament players of the day and the top showbusiness celebrities from down the road in Hollywood. And as a climax to the week, a black-tie banquet was arranged for the ballroom of the Palm Springs Riviera Hotel.

In the event, the winner wasn't Arnold Palmer nor his heir-apparent, Jack Nicklaus, but a 24-year-old Monday qualifier by the name of Frank Beard. Still, the story of Beard's breakthrough triumph outdid anything we could imagine from the celebrated duo.

Beard recalls it as the first tournament "where we ever got free food", along with free accommodation and cashmere cardigans. And there was more. For instance, each guest was presented with a custom-crafted MacGregor heel-shafted putter, designed by Toney Penna. With a caricature of Ol' Blue Eyes and his signature engraved on the head, these copper-plated gems earned a place among the most treasured items in golf memorabilia.

According to a leading American expert on putters, Sinatra originally wanted the implements to be made of gold but shelved the idea on being informed it would have spoiled their practical use. Fewer than two dozen of them have since surfaced on the collector circuit and one was sold to a Japanese enthusiast for more than $20,000.

Meanwhile, the man himself was recalled by the 1959 PGA Championship winner Bob Rosburg as a fair golfer who "liked to be good at everything, but he couldn't play as well as Dean Martin, Bob Hope or Bing Crosby." Rosburg added: "That bothered him, I think."

Hope's book, Confessions of a Hooker, carries a photograph of himself, Crosby and Sinatra performing together on stage. The caption refers to a slim, youthful Sinatra as "the walking one-iron", which was fairly reflective of his physique at that time.

Earlier this year, I wrote of Sinatra taking advantage of a Scottish performance in 1953 to attend The Open at Carnoustie as a keen fan of the winner, Ben Hogan. Then, back in Scotland in 1972, he followed the lead of other golfing celebrities by visiting the famous John Letters club-making facility in Glasgow. And as they had done for Hope and Crosby, the company produced a splendid set with the singer's autograph stamped on the heads.

Ol' Blue Eyes was so pleased with the finished product that on his return to the US, he wrote to Jimmy Letters, the craftsman concerned, thanking him and including a signed photograph of himself. Which became one of the Scot's proudest possessions. "Of all the memorabilia I have gathered over the years, those items from Frank Sinatra were very special to me," he said.

Recalling the 1963 tournament, Beard said: "Down the stretch, I managed some crafty long-iron play and finished birdie-birdie-par to beat [Jerry] Steelsmith by one. Winning my first professional event was huge; winning in the next best thing to Hollywood was even better."

He explained: "The star power was blinding. They were all there, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jnr and Peter Lawford, like the Rat Pack were giving a mandatory command performance for their chairman. And somewhere, I still have a picture of me with a dumbstruck look on my face, standing next to the stunning Jill St John."

The downside for Beard, however, was that he soon realised he was only a bit player in what was essentially a celebrities' shindig. In fact, without an invitation to the banquet, he found himself celebrating his first tour win with a cheeseburger from hotel room-service. But there would be a glorious postscript.

Seven months later, Beard became seriously ill and lapsed into a coma, causing grave concern to his mother. At the height of her anguish, she was heading for the hospital to see her son when her home phone rang. It was Sinatra. "I just wanted to see how Francis is doing," the instantly recognisable voice enquired.

Beard takes up the story: "Long before I ever met him and long before he melted my mother onto the kitchen floor, I had been a fan of Sinatra's. In the early '60s, he was the king. And when I recovered from that illness, I probably went to see him on stage about 10 times over the next four or five years.

"I still don't know how he pulled this off because after my win, I never had any kind of contact with him. But every time I'd go to his show, he would point me out to the crowd. Then the great Sinatra, who was famous for not taking requests, would say: 'My man Francis Beard is in the audience tonight. He won my golf tournament a few years back. Francis take a bow and pick a song.' And I would invariably select 'All the Way'."

The eventual winner of 11 tour events concluded: "How a kid from Louisville ended up winning the first, last and only Frank Sinatra Open Invitational I'll never know. But I relish the memory."

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