Ron Agostini

Celebrities in swing at Pebble Beach

PEBBLE BEACH -- Facts aside, the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am does not begin today.

It actually began Wednesday, if you take seriously the bona fide spirit of this 6-decade-old event. It kicked off on the first tee with celebrities posturing and spectators laughing.

"We love the pros," veteran rocker Huey Lewis tells the crowd, "but this is our tournament."

Lewis was so right. This is a PGA Tour event only when George Lopez, the self-titled "America's Mexican," deems it so. Bill Murray throws a fish into the crowd, Lopez does a mock samba after a good shot, and then Phil Mickelson swings away with his driver.

In that order.

Bing Crosby, dead since 1977, set the rules long ago. It was his "Clambake," his party for his friends, with a little Byron Nelson and Ken Venturi thrown in for effect. If a few good shots were struck between one-liners, all the better. Tiger Woods hasn't appeared here since 2002 and perhaps 10 people have noticed.

Wednesday's annual Celebrity Charity Shootout, a hit-and-giggle exhibition for charity and nonstop photo ops, reflected Crosby himself. The lineup used to be Jack Lemmon, Clint Eastwood, Dean Martin and Bob Hope. In 2008, it's Kenny G, Chris Berman, Carson Daly, Kevin James, Andy Garcia, Luke Wilson, Chris O'Donnell, Don Cheadle and Kevin Costner.

New names. Same fun.

Rumors flowed through the golf media last month that Murray, the celebrity Pied Piper of this tournament since the early 1990s, probably has appeared in his final AT&T. The issue runs deeper than his film commitments that kept him out of this year's field. The story goes, Murray has chafed over Lopez's popularity here the last four years and doesn't like sharing the stage.

Lopez knocked down the rumors. Sort of. He said he likes Murray and admires his work but doesn't know him well, a semi-non-denial-denial.

There is something else you need to know: Lopez, the official host of The Bob Hope Chrysler Classic in January, has been welcomed into the official golf celebrity establishment, a rite of passage that happens after you own a home along 17-Mile Drive. He loves golf, he can hit a good shot from time to time and his Latino-laced humor still clicks.

"For $9, they'll let you on 17-Mile Drive," he cracked during the California Golf Writers Association Awards Banquet on Tuesday night, "and witness Caucasians in their natural habitat."

Quick, someone tell him the natural habitat isn't necessarily mansions with 5½ baths costing $6.5 million.

Murray was an outrageous 5½-hour sight gag. He raised the ante from Lemmon's aging one-liners by getting very physical -- emptying purses onto the green, tossing women into bunkers and laughing out loud while partner Scott Simpson hunched over a 5-footer.

Here's the rub: Murray launched his shtick from an "I'm not really a golf guy" angle. Meanwhile, Lopez is passionate about the game, even when he dons a kilt -- which he promises to do once this week. He thinks the game saved him from his troubled childhood and brings him peace of mind in the up-and-down world of Hollywood.

Lopez is not leaving the golf stage soon.

He was merely a role player Wednesday, however, as ESPN's sports anchor Chris Berman again stole headlines. Berman, an 18-handicapper, lunges at the ball as though he's trying to kill a snake. If he's lucky, his backswing reaches the height of his belt.

He already had a "Boomer" moment at Pebble Beach, however, when he scored a natural birdie at the 18th to make the cut in 2005. But fate knocked on his door again during the Celebrity Shootout as he and partner Kenny G walked down the same 18th.

Berman faced a 6-footer for the win, and his "friends" fed the moment. Lopez encouraged a rhythmic clap from the crowd, Lewis yelled "Timeout!" while Berman assessed the putt and announcer Bob Murphy chimed in, "It's right-center, Boomer."

So in that environment, Berman stepped up and ... holed it! Cue the slight Kenny G running into the hulking Berman's arms, a SportsCenter highlight.

"This one I was supposed to make. It's for money for charity. I could have pulled it 8 feet to the left," Berman said. "The other (in 2005) was just for us, and I had just enough beers in me. I was very nervous."

So was Andy Williams when he sang the opening bars of "Moon River" on the first tee. So was Glen Campbell before his first shot. So was Joe Montana, as much out of his element on a golf course as he was in his element down by three points with a minute left.

The idea at Pebble Beach, at least during non-U.S. Open years, calls out for Mickelson and Davis Love III on Sunday. Until then, Lopez's Legions get all the attention.

Let there also be room for Murray next year.

Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at ragostini@modbee.com or 578-2302.

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