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

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - COMMENT - 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, car­ries a pho­to­graph of him­self, Crosby and Si­na­tra per­form­ing to­gether on stage. The cap­tion refers to a slim, youth­ful Si­na­tra as “the walk­ing one­iron”, 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.”

‘I prob­a­bly went to see him about 10 times over the next four or five years’

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