PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — In 1937, when Bing Crosby first hosted what became the Clambake, an annual gathering of golf and cocktail freaks, the celebrity pro-am was a novel concept.
Even a generation later, when Crosby’s pal Bob Hope stamped his name on a Tour stage in the California desert, the intersection of elite golf and entertainment barely registered as a culture blip. pop.
Times are changing, however. The world is also changing.
The seed Crosby planted became an industry – a cottage industry, anyway, big enough to support a celebrity golf circuit, attracting big crowds and sponsors and, perhaps most impressively, A-listers. amateurs who have turned the rotation into a part-time gig.
Let’s be clear: Alfonso Ribeiro has not quit his job and has no intention of doing so. That would be crazy; it did him good.
For non-golf fans, the lovable 51-year-old is widely recognized as an actor, comedian and TV personality, a former star of The 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 likely to see Ribeiro as something else entirely. As well as being the voice of the PGA Tour Champions commercials, he’s a golf junkie who seems to be everywhere at once, tying him to all the events that pair professional golfers with luminaries from other fields.
“This game was a blessing for me, there’s no doubt about that,” Ribeiro told me last week. “Apart from family and work, it has brought more rewards than anything in my life.”
It’s a sunny midweek morning in Monterey, and Ribeiro is soaking up the atmosphere ahead of Crosby’s former event, a tournament now known as the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. The atmosphere is both festive and familiar to Ribeiro, who started participating here in what… 2015? 2016?
“You can probably google it,” he says (you can; that’s 2016!).
It’s no wonder Ribeiro is losing track. In the past year alone, he has reached four of what he calls “five majors” on the pro-am circuit: the American Championship of the Century in Tahoe; the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions in Lake Nona; the celebrity guest classic in Dallas; and now AT&T. It pains him to miss the Pure Insurance Championship, also at Pebble. But that couldn’t be helped. He was locked up for shooting Dancing with the stars.
Add to that other golf-a-paloozas, like the annual charity event he hosts in Los Angeles, and day trips too numerous to name, and you begin to grasp the fullness of the ledger of Ribeiro. Unlike some pros, he never complains about overplaying.
“I write things down in my schedule and let people around me know that’s what I’d like to do,” Ribeiro says. “I do my best to integrate things. But work always comes first.”
In a roundabout way, it was work that brought Ribeiro to golf, a game he had never played — and barely heard of — growing up in the Bronx, the child of Afro-Trinidadian parents. Baseball was his sport. It wasn’t until his late teens, after theater and dance took him to Hollywood, that Ribeiro first stepped back and blew 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 the driver,” Ribeiro said. He caught them all flush, knocking all three of them 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 has also improved. As he recalls, his first pro-am appearance was in 2010 (or was it 2011? You could probably google it too) at Monday After the Masters, a charity event hosted by Hootie and the Blowfish in Myrtle. Beach. Waiting in his cart for starting instructions that week, Ribeiro introduced himself to an easy-going guy in an adjacent buggy: Tour pro Willie McGirt.
“He reaches out and says, ‘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 felt intimidated. And Al, being the down-to-earth kind of guy he is, breaks the ice by saying, “Well, now I’m watching you on TV.”
At that time, Ribeiro’s game was solid enough to raise expectations. He put pressure on himself to play well in front of the public. But that was then. These days, he says, he no longer feels the slightest jitters at the first start. The seasoning helps. His clue too. These days, Ribeiro plays with a 0.7.
“When I started, everything for me was a long distance contest, swinging out of my shoes with every swing,” Ribeiro said. “Learning to hit the touch shots. That was key.
It’s practically an axiom in golf that scratch players don’t win handicapped tournaments. Indeed, Ribeiro has never won at Pebble. But he did not win any of the other “majors”. It’s hard to beat the big packs, especially the ones that are packed with talent.
Confident as he is, Ribeiro concedes he’s not quite up to par with the pro-am regulars he jokingly 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 this.
Among the Hollywood board, he ranks right up there, just behind Jack Wagner and a shadow ahead of his pal Michael Pena, a frequent playing partner at Lakeside, the private Burbank course to which they both belong.
“There are other actors who think they’re number one but aren’t,” Ribeiro says. Josh Lucas comes to mind, as does Dennis Quaid.
“Dennis once told a bunch of us that he was the best golfer in our industry,” Ribeiro said. “We all just laughed.”
Ribeiro has other favorite pro-am moments, like the moment (what year was it?) at Tim Tebow’s charity event at TPC Sawgrass when his shot on the island’s famous 17th green shook the flag and nearly fell 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 he made famous on the Fresh Prince.
He and McGirt are paired this week at Pebble, where they’ve teamed up several times before, their best result being in 2018 (it’s Google-able), when they dropped the cup so hard on Saturday that the whole of Sunday became a vague.
“We were so tired on the first tee the next morning,” McGirt said. “It felt like we had been partying all night.”
It is difficult to predict how this week will unfold. Ribeiro doesn’t sweat anyway. The pleasure is what counts, he says, not the result.
“Things are going well with my family, they are good with work, I love this game,” he said. “My feeling is that just by being here, I have already won.”