Monday, Sep 25, 2023

For golf-mad celebrities, high-end pro-am circuit is like a part-time gig

Alfonso Ribeiro is back in the field at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am this week.

getty images

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — In 1937, when Bing Crosby first hosted what became the Clambake, an annual gathering of golf-mad, cocktail-happy gadabouts, the celebrity pro-am was a novel concept.

Even a generation later, when Crosby’s pal, Bob Hope, stamped his name on a Tour stop in the California desert, the crossover of elite golf and entertainment barely registered as a pop-cultural blip.

Times change, though. The world changes, too.

The seed that Crosby planted has grown into an industry — a cottage industry, anyway, large enough to sustain a celebrity golf circuit, drawing large crowds and sponsors and, maybe most impressively, amateur A-listers who have turned the rota into a part-time gig.

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We should make this clear: Alfonso Ribeiro hasn’t quit his day job and doesn’t plan to. That would be plain crazy; it’s been good to him.

To non-golf fans, the amiable 51-year-old is widely recognized as an actor, comedian and TV personality, a former star on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, among other sitcoms; the current host of America’s Funniest Home Videos; and co-host of Dancing with the Stars.

Golf fans with tunnel vision, on the other hand, are apt to see Ribeiro as something else. In addition to being the voice of PGA Tour Champions commercials, he is a golf junkie who seems to be everywhere at once, pegging it in any and all events that pair pro golfers with luminaries from other fields.

“This game has been a blessing to me, no doubt about it,” Ribeiro told me week. “Aside from family and work, it has brought more rewards than anything in my life.”

It’s a sun-kissed, mid-week morning in Monterey, and Ribeiro is soaking up the atmosphere in advance of Crosby’s old event, a tournament now known as the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. The mood is at once festive and familiar to Ribeiro, who started taking part here in, what…2015? 2016?

“You can probably Google it,” he says (You can; 2016 it is!).

It’s no wonder Ribeiro loses track. In the past year alone, he has made it to four of what he bills as “the five majors” of the pro-am circuit: the American Century Championship, in Tahoe; the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions, in Lake Nona; the Invited Celebrity Classic, in Dallas; and now the AT&T. It pains him to have missed the Pure Insurance Championship, also at Pebble. But it couldn’t be helped. He was locked in for shooting Dancing with the Stars.

For golf-mad celebrities, high-end pro-am circuit is like a part-time gig
Ribiero and Lydia Ko at the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions last year. getty images

Throw in other golf-a-paloozas, like the annual charity event he hosts in Los Angeles, and one-day outings too numerous to name, and you start to grasp the fullness of Ribeiro’s ledger. Unlike some pros, he never complains about playing too much.

“I kind of pencil things into the schedule and let people around me know that this is what I’d like to do,” Ribeiro says. “I do my best to fit things in. But work always comes first.”

In a roundabout way, it was work that brought Ribeiro into a golf, a game he’d never played — and had barely heard of — as a kid growing up in the Bronx, the child of Afro-Trinidadian parents. Baseball was his sport. Not until his late teens, after acting and dancing had taken him to Hollywood, did Ribeiro first rear back and blast one off the tee. On a whim, he had joined friends on a visit to a Los Angeles driving range.

“The first three swings were with driver, because of course I was going to hit driver,” Ribeiro said. He caught them all flush, knocking all three over a distant fence.

“I fell in love right there,” Ribeiro said. “And, boy, did I fall hard.”

Life and work went on. Ribeiro’s game also progressed. As he recalls, his first pro-am appearance was in 2010 (or was it 2011? You could probably Google that, too) at Monday After the Masters, a Hootie and the Blowfish-hosted charitable event in Myrtle Beach. Waiting in his cart for starting instructions that week, Ribeiro introduced himself to an easygoing guy in an adjacent buggy: the Tour pro Willie McGirt.

“He sticks out his hand and goes, ‘Hi, I’m Al,’” McGirt said. “And I’m like, yeah, I know who you are. I grew up watching you on TV.’ I was the one who was feeling intimidated. And Al being the kind of down-to-earth guy he is breaks the ice by saying, ‘Well, now I’m the one who watches you on television.’”

For golf-mad celebrities, high-end pro-am circuit is like a part-time gig
Will McGirt checking out Ribiero’s action at Pebble this week. Josh Sens

In those days, Ribeiro’s game was sound enough to inspire expectations. He put pressure on himself to play well in front of crowds. But that was then. Nowadays, he says, he doesn’t feel the faintest first-tee jitters. Seasoning helps. So does his index. These days, Ribeiro plays off a 0.7.

“When I first started, everything for me was a long-drive contest, swinging out of my shoes on every swing,” Ribeiro said. “Learning to hit the touch shots. That’s been key.”

It’s practically an axiom in golf that scratch players don’t win handicapped events. Sure enough, Ribeiro has never won at Pebble. But nor has he won any of the other “majors.” It’s tough to beat big fields, especially ones teeming with talent.

Confident as he is, Ribeiro concedes that he’s not quite at the level of the pro-am regulars whom he kiddingly calls “the unemployed.” Ex-athletes like Mark Mulder, Tony Romo, John Smoltz and Mardy Fish.

“They’re basically retired,” Ribeiro says. “I’m still working. I can’t keep up with that.”

Among the Hollywood set, he ranks himself right up there, just behind Jack Wagner and a shade ahead of his pal Michael Pena, a frequent playing partner at Lakeside, the private course in Burbank where they both belong.

“There are some other actors out there who think they’re number one but aren’t,” Ribeiro says. Josh Lucas comes to mind, as does Dennis Quaid.

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“Dennis was going on one time to a bunch of us about being the best golfer in our industry,” Ribeiro says. “We all just laughed.”

Ribeiro has other favorite pro-am moments, like the time (what year was it?) at Tim Tebow’s charity event at TPC Sawgrass when his shot on the famed island-green 17th rattled the flag and nearly dropped for a hole in one. There was also the time (2015, maybe?) when, playing with McGirt at PGA West, Ribeiro drained an eagle and celebrated with a crowd-pleasing Carlton dance: the jig that he made famous on the Fresh Prince.

He and McGirt are paired this week at Pebble, where they have partnered several times before, their best finish coming in 2018 (it’s Google-able), when they scrapped so hard the make the cut on Saturday that all of Sunday became a blur.

“We were so tired on the first tee the next morning,” McGirt said. “It felt like we’d been out partying all night.”

How this week will unfold is hard to forecast. Ribeiro isn’t sweating it either way. Enjoyment is what matters, he said, not the outcome.

“Things are good with my family, they’re good with work, I love this game,” he said. “My feeling is, just by being out here, I’ve already won.”

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Josh Sens Contributor

A golf, food and travel writer, Josh Sens has been a GOLF Magazine contributor since 2004 and now contributes across all of GOLF’s platforms. His work has been anthologized in The Best American Sportswriting. He is also the co-author, with Sammy Hagar, of Are We Having Any Fun Yet: the Cooking and Partying Handbook.

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