My first contact with Dinah Shore was actually with her window.
I broke it.
Of course it wasn’t any little old window. No, no, no. Of course not. It was a floor-to-ceiling sliding glass door that led to her backyard patio in the shadow of the ninth hole of what is now known as the Dinah Shore Tournament Course at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, California.
It was the day after Juli Inkster won the 1989 Nabisco Dinah Shore, the annual first major of the year for the LPGA Tour. Media members were allowed to play the course that Monday, with the same pin placements as the best women players in the world faced in the final round.
All was well – the sun was bright, the winds low, the team playing well with birdies galore through eight holes. And then we stood in the middle of the fairway of the dogleg, par-5 ninth with a chance to reach the green in two.
My Titleist 3 didn’t reach the green in two. Instead, my 3-wood – yes, it was a wood back then – sent the ball wildly hooking away from the intended target and then crashing through the sliding glass door.
Thank heavens Dinah wasn’t with someone in the kitchen.
I was told by the appropriate people that insurance would take care of the damage and Dinah would never find out who unleashed the glass-breaking missile.
But a year later, someone pointed me out to Dinah as she was playing in a charity event and told her I was the one who shattered her sliding glass door.
“It was you? You’re the one?” she said in the most livid voice she could muster that belied all her Southern charm. “So you’re the one who broke my window and made a clean getaway.”
I was a bit on edge. Then she smiled and lit up the world.
I got a hug instead of a bill and a slap upside my head.
“So glad to meet you,” she said.
There I was, two years into my first job out of college, the prep writer for The Desert Sun in Palm Springs, joking around with Dinah. Gaining experience and paying my dues at a jarringly low salary was happily augmented by a workload that included coverage of a PGA Tour event, a major on the LPGA Tour, a senior tour golf event, one of the best professional tennis tournaments in the world, the Don Drysdale Hall of Fame Classic, the NFL’s Fastest Man contest, the Pepsi All-Star Softball Game, The Skins Game and 13 glorious days when the California Angels played spring training games at Palm Springs Stadium.
Cover a high school varsity boys and girls basketball doubleheader one night, head to the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic the next morning. Write up a high school tennis match one evening, write a story on Andre Agassi or Martina Navratilova the next day. Chronicle a high school track meet, watch the NFL’s fastest men sprint the following afternoon.
Break Dinah’s window, end up playing 18 with her.
Not a bad gig indeed. A lot of pinch-me moments, the best without question a round with Dinah. Ahead of the 1991 Nabisco Dinah Shore, I asked the main media official for the tournament if I could play with Dinah and then write a story on her for the bonus section the paper produced each year.
“Dinah says of course,” I later heard.
So, two years after reducing her sliding glass door to rubble, I was hitting balls on the practice range at MHCC ahead of my 18 with Dinah. And I waited. And waited. And waited. Then I was told our tee time was bumped 45 minutes. Didn’t ask why. Just kept hitting balls into the horizon.
Just when I thought Dinah wasn’t going to be able to play for whatever reason, she emerged on the range and began to say hello to every one of the 40 or so golfers.
“I’m so sorry, Steve, I was on the phone with Kirk Douglas,” she said.
Not often you’re put on hold by Spartacus.
Dinah hit a few balls, the smallest bucket you can imagine.
“Steve, want to go see my new window?” she said and then laughed. “Let’s go.”
And off we went to the Arnold Palmer Course adjacent to the course that bears her name and one that presents a strong but fair challenge full of water hazards, deep bunkers and testing greens.
Dinah was playing to a 23 then and you quickly learned you want her on your side in a match. And you never – repeat – never put up money against her in a putting contest. What she lacked in power – she was 73 – she made up for with command of the shortest club in her bag.
She played quickly with a smile that never left her face. And the silence of the serene game was gladly broken when she started singing, which was about on every hole. Soothing tunes were steady, good shots aplenty, many laughs constant.
I can still hear her say, “Good shot, Steve,” or “Nice putt, Steve.” I returned in kind, but she’d say, “You’re just being polite.” That was a phrase not often spoken to me, but it made me smile.
We’d play a few holes and then drive the cart to a shady spot to talk all things Dinah. She spoke with delight about the Grand Ole Opry, cooking, her stardom on television for four decades, her days as a competitive swimmer and a member of the fencing team at Vanderbilt University, her days entertaining the troops on USO tours to Europe. It was a majestic career that spanned more than 50 years and was marked by her abundant popularity, 10 Emmy Awards, nine gold records, a Golden Glove, a Peabody Award.
And she went on and on about her great love in life – singing – and how her passion – golf – was driving her batty.
“Golf is like a lousy lover,” she said. “Like someone who is never there when you need him. And just when you least expect it, your lover shows up and makes you feel like heaven on earth. But just when you think the world is perfect and life is wonderful, your lover takes the next bus out of town.”
She hopped aboard the golf bus and embraced the game from the get-go when Colgate president David Foster talked her into putting her name on a women’s golf tournament in 1972.
At 52, Dinah traded in her tennis racket for golf clubs. And the golf bug bit hard.
She said she didn’t want to embarrass herself so she did what she could to learn the game and play it well without ignoring all her other callings. And she sure did play, eagerly becoming a regular participant in pro-ams – she played about 10-12 a year – as well as becoming the first woman member of Hillcrest Country Club on the west side of Los Angles.
“I’m not good. I hit the ball and then I giggle so I won’t cry,” she said, underplaying her ability.
When talk turned to the tournament, she dismissed her enormous influence that elevated the women’s game.
“Oh, Steve, it was the players,” she said.
But it was Dinah who opened a massive door. Her Hollywood connections and glamour sparked the LPGA Tour to new heights and brought forth a much-needed spotlight when network TV coverage was a precious commodity. When the Colgate-Dinah Shore Winners Circle Tournament made its debut in 1972, Jane Blalock won and received a check for $20,000, which was $15,000 more than any other LPGA tournament winner was awarded that year.
“Sometimes in sports there is a defining moment,” Blalock told the Los Angeles Times in 2011. “That moment for us was 40 years ago.”
As the years passed, the tournament grew in stature and Dinah never shied from one of her most important leading roles.
“The tournament will always be The Dinah as far as I’m concerned,” said Dottie Pepper, the lead on-course analyst for CBS golf coverage. Among her 17 LPGA Tour titles were her major triumphs in The Dinah in 1992 and 1999.
“Dinah put the LPGA on the Hollywood and TV stage at the most needed time,” Pepper said. “She provided the theater for our first major championship of the year. Exposure to a world-wide audience that we could only dream about at the time. She genuinely loved the game, especially the women’s game, and we should all be forever grateful.”
Dinah, who passed away in her Beverly Hills home in 1994, is honored with plaques in the World Golf Hall of Fame and the Television Academy Hall of Fame. Worthy tributes indeed.
But my lasting memory will be the 18 holes I played with her – and the time spent at the 19th hole talking and laughing the time away. I’ve played Augusta National twice, Cypress Point twice, Riv, Oakmont, Merion, Olympic, Hoylake, Pebble and Spyglass. The Old Course at the Home of Golf and Pinehurst No. 2 in the Cradle of American Golf. The Stadium Course at PGA West, the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass. Cherry Hills, Oak Hill and Hillcrest.
But my best day and the most fun I’ve ever had on a golf course without question was with Dinah, the 18 holes that spanned nearly six hours – we didn’t slow play nor hold anyone up as the conversations timed out longer than the actual playing of the round. I can still hear her singing, still see her smiling, still picture her draining a putt.
The 18 with Dinah surpassed even the day I made my lone hole-in-one, which came a year later in the Dinah Shore Media Day tournament, at the famous 17th hole on the Dinah Shore Tournament Course.
Dinah awarded me a marble clock that year as our team was victorious. But the gift of her company the year prior will forever be the leader in the clubhouse of memories playing the wonderful game of golf.