Sunday, February 28, 2010

Following ABC-TV's cancellation of American Scene Magazine in 1971, Jackie Gleason retreated into semi-retirement. There were offers from other networks, but Gleason--ex-pool hustler from the streets of Brooklyn--was living the Florida Dream. "Look at that beautiful golf course and blue sky," he told reporters. "Why would anyone work with a life like mine?"

Gleason was soon approached by the Broward County developers of Lauderhill, a ready-made community of towering palms, majestic waterfalls, and shimmering waterways. Trouble was, less than 100 homesites had been sold. Developers asked Gleason to lend his name to a PGA golf tournament, to be held at Lauderhill's posh Inverrary Country Club. Gleason agreed, and from 1972 to 1980 the Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic was a regular stop on the PGA tour.

Not coincidentally, Lauderhill's population swelled by 30,000 between 1970 and 1980. In appreciation, developers presented The Great One with a gift: a 14-room mansion along an Inverrary fairway, tweaked to Gleason's specifications. The home featured a billiard room designed by champion pool shooter Willie Mosconi, and a circular saloon, a replica of the bar at Toots Shors. Gleason even designed bar stools with high arm rests. "They're impossible to fall off," he boasted, "no matter how sloshed you get."

For nine years, the Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic attracted golf's biggest stars. Past winners included Tom Weiskopf, Johnny Miller, Lee Trevino, and--most famously--Jack Nicklaus, who in 1978 birdied the final five holes to win by a stroke.

Each year Jackie's tournament featured a pro-am event, played the day before the actual competition, in which A-list celebrities and well-heeled industrialists played alongside their PGA heroes.

The 1974 pro-am even attracted President Richard Nixon. Gleason and Nixon addressed the spectators before the event.

Nixon: "I'm delighted to be here. I understand you don't start playing until Thursday, except for the celebrities. Do you call that playing?"

Gleason: "Only when the girls are here."

Nixon: "I know it will be a very safe tournament this year because I've ordered the Vice President to remain in Washington."

Nixon was referring to Spiro Agnew, his veep who--in 1971 during a pro-am in California--beaned PGA pro Doug Saunders with an errant shot.

The dour, humorless Richard Nixon--cracking wise? Proof positive Gleason could make anyone shine.

During the pro-am that year Gleason was paired with Bob Hope (known as Hollywood's most accomplished golfer) and PGA pro Lee Trevino. Gleason and Hope were playing for $25,000 which the winner would donate to the charity of his choice.

Over 40,000 spectators jammed the fairways. "It was a bigger crowd," Trevino observed, "than I ever saw at a U.S. Open." The gallery sensed there was more than money at stake; this was a showdown for Hollywood bragging rights.

Gleason and Hope were tied as they played the final hole. Gleason hit his second shot on the par four into a greenside bunker, while Hope's approach found the front of the green. Jackie, always the athlete despite his enormous girth, blasted out of the trap to five feet. When Hope three-putted and Gleason sank his putt for par and the win, the Great One couldn't resist. He pulled his ball out of the cup, broke into his famous Gleason shuffle, and sang out: "...and away-y-y-y we go!"

The crowd went wild.

Gleason stepped down as host following the 1980 event after a dispute with sponsors. Today the event is known as the Honda Classic, and has been won in recent years by PGA stars Fred Couples, Nick Price, and Vijay Singh.

No matter who wins each year's tournament, however, Jackie Gleason will forever be remembered as the biggest name associated with the event...
literally and figuratively!

--Ken Brooks, Yesterday in Florida magazine, Issue 20