Every year as of late has seemingly brought about a major change to the CareerBuilder Challenge, the Coachella Valley’s annual PGA Tour event. The latest big change: In early September 2017, Lagardere Sports acquired complete operational control of the golf tournament.
In some years, golf’s biggest names have not bothered to visit our backyard for the January event—even though the tournament’s lineage stretches back to the heyday of the Bob Hope Classic. This latest rendition does not even aspire to reclaim the star-studded glitz and glamour associated with its history.
That’s what Jeff Sanders, the newly appointed executive director of the CareerBuilder Challenge (and the executive vice president of Lagardere Golf Sports events) said when I spoke with him recently about the tourney, currently played on three courses in La Quinta: the PGA West’s Stadium and Jack Nicklaus Tournament courses, as well as the La Quinta Country Club.
“Forty-five years ago was the last time that Arnold Palmer won the Bob Hope Desert Classic,” Sanders said. “We’re going to honor Mr. Hope and Mr. Palmer forever. But we also need to change—and the change is our entertainment, golf-festival-event model. With all due respect, it’s time to change this thing up, make it different and make it fun.
“In our business, if you get the question, ‘Who’s playing, Jeff? Who’s playing?’ Well, let’s see. Phil Mickelson is playing. And John Daly is playing. That’s crazy. That’s good. But the problem is that if that’s where it stops, then all you’ve got is a golf tournament. What I want to have is a tournament where the golf element is the centerpiece, and everything else around it makes it an event. That’s the difference—the food, the wine and these amazing green side pavilions on the 16th, 17th and 18th finishing holes of the PGA West Stadium Course where you can go in, have a drink and watch a little football on big-screen TVs all add value for the ticket-buyer. And then you can always look out the window and say, ‘Hey, there’s Phil Mickelson out there making a birdie on 17.’ You’ve got to make it more than golf.”
This year, anyone who buys a $30 daily general-admission ticket (and most likely pays a $10 per-day parking fee) will get access to all of the best viewing stands and refreshment centers—and be treated like a VIP.
“We want this event to be fun for everyone,” Sanders said, “and at the end of the day, we want to give back as much money as we can to local Coachella Valley charities. Our theme this year is ‘Golf Fore Kids,’ and so local children’s charities will be our donation recipients. And for us, success is judged by the size of our crowds. La Quinta is one of the best destinations in the country for great weather and great activities in the winter months. There are plenty of people here in La Quinta and throughout the desert in January to have a big crowd at our tourney.”
Another part of the Lagardere formula—and included in the price of admission—is music concerts. Huey Lewis and the News headline the show on Friday, Jan. 19, and the Goo Goo Dolls will do the same on Saturday, Jan. 20. Both shows are slated to begin at 4:30 p.m., right as the day’s golf play concludes.
“This year up in Napa (at the Safeway Open tournament, which Lagardere manages as well), we had six nights of concerts, Monday through Saturday,” Sanders said. “The year before, we had only two shows. So here at the CareerBuilder, (in 2019), we’ll have more than two concerts—I can guarantee you that. Whether it’ll be three shows or six, I don’t know. … We’ll certainly add more music and other fun things each year.”
Mike Taylor, a 45-year resident of the desert, is a golf enthusiast and former bartender at famed local establishments like Lord Fletcher’s in Rancho Mirage who served many of the film, music and political personalities who frequented the valley in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. Taylor regaled us recently with a few tales of those halcyon days of the Bob Hope Classic.
“One of my fondest memories was watching Jackie Gleason playing with Bob Hope,” Taylor said. “Gleason was wearing a sweater vest and tie. He was ‘dressed to the nines.’ The Saturday I saw them, it was on Bermuda Dunes, and Gleason didn’t play well. From what I understand, he had a massive hangover, because I also understand that he was a pretty handy drinker. He stayed at the Spa Hotel for the whole week, and because the celebrities who played in the ProAm didn’t get any money (from the organizers), he did run up a pretty good tab of around $10,000. I heard he said, ‘Give it to Bob Hope,’ when he checked out. But I think he was probably worth it, because there were enormous crowds when I was out there. I mean, you could hardly walk.”
Even back then, the weekend wasn’t only about golf. “One of the fun things about the tournament experience at that time was that each night, after play ended, there’d be impromptu jam sessions at various hotels in the valley, and they’d be packed,” Taylor said. “You never knew who you’d run into having fun at one of those happenings. That was in the old days when the Hebert brothers were still playing on the PGA Tour … Jay and Lionel Hebert, and you had Jimmy Demaret from Texas. These were all fun-loving guys who liked to sing. But you could wind up seeing Arnold Palmer sing, and (Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop) Maury Wills playing the banjo and singing. There was Jack Lemmon playing the piano. It was just so much fun, like a Mardi Gras in the Desert.”
Alas, those days are gone and never coming back—and Sanders and his team aren’t focused on competing with the past or the PGA major championships.
“This isn’t Augusta National, OK? It’s not the U.S. Open or the British Open,” Sanders said. “This is a regular PGA Tour event. It’s phenomenal golf, but it’s not one of the majors, which people flock to mostly just for the golf. And by the way, why would you make the weekend only about golf when you’re in La Quinta in January? It makes no sense. There’s so much more to do here. We’ll have fun activities around the grounds at PGA West. We’re going to create autograph opportunities for the kids, and the parents, too. The fan experience will be awesome.”
The CareerBuilder Challenge takes place Wednesday, Jan. 17, through Sunday, Jan. 21. For more information, visit www.careerbuilderchallenge.com.