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More golf for Vegas?

A reliable source is telling me that in these weird times of sports cancellations and rescheduling, there is an excellent chance that Las Vegas will not only host our annual PGA Tour event at TPC Summerlin in two months — for the 38th consecutive year — but that we will add a second official event as well the following week.

As there are three overseas events currently scheduled in the weeks after ours, it is expected those tournaments will be canceled due to COVID-19.

Having back-to-back events in the same city, or on the same course, is not without precedent. Jack Nicklaus’s Muirfield Village hosted back-to-backers last month, and both events went off seamlessly.

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This would be terrific news and give local sports fans another fall viewing option in a season that just saw the postponement of UNLV’s football schedule. We’ll take whatever good news we can get in this Year of Living Dangerously.

Professional golf has a rich history in Las Vegas, going back to the original Tournament of Champions at the Desert Inn in 1953. There are so many colorful stories associated with that event, and I never tire of hearing them.

Take the initial championship, which was won by a journeyman professional named Al Besselink. The first prize was $10,000, the richest winner’s reward of that era, and the bounty was rolled out to the 18th green in a wheelbarrow spilling over with silver dollars. No corny plywood check for those Vegas marketing gurus; they rewarded the champion with glistening coins. The rumor that persisted for years was that Besselink, a noted gambler, surrendered all the prize money to one-armed bandits in the DI casino before he left town.

I interviewed Al many years ago about that story, and he swore it wasn’t true. He told me he made a pact with God standing over a victory-clinching eight-foot curling putt on the final green.

“I said, Lord, if you help me coax this putt in, I’ll give half the money to charity,” he said, “and that’s what I did.”

I prefer the rumor to Bessie’s version, but I’m not going to question the veracity of a guy as pleasant and colorful as Al. He was 85 when I interviewed him, and he’s 97 today. He is confined to a wheelchair in a Miami nursing home, missing his left eye from cancer surgery, but still loves to chat with nurses or anyone passing by. 

A few years ago I mistakenly butt-dialed his number on my cell phone, and when he answered, it was with this: “Al Besselink here. With whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?”

I wasn’t about to hang up on a man of his stature, and we ended up spending a solid half hour reminiscing about Las Vegas and golf and a variety of other topics. It was the most enjoyable accidental call I’d ever made.

The Las Vegas Golf Hall of Fame wisely inducted the Tournament of Champions into its hall about 10 years ago, and the committee flew in Besselink from Florida to represent all those who made the tournament the social event of its time. Al donned a brilliant neon yellow sportcoat for the occasion, and he requested that he be the last speaker at the podium. It was a wise decision, as no one would have wanted to follow the octogenarian with his sharp wit and booming voice.

He regaled the audience for a full 30 minutes. Former UNLV All-American and PGA Tour player Chris Riley and I emceed that event, and he made our jobs effortless. We just stood in the wings and laughed as Bessie told one colorful story after another.

There were years in the 1970s and ‘80s when Al worked as a casino host in Las Vegas, and he got to know all the movers and shakers of the day. He was pals with Big Julie Weintraub and Joe Louis and Ash Resnick and Kirk Kerkorian and Irwin Molasky. Al and Irwin were even married to the same woman. “But not at the same time,” Al told me, with a huge laugh.

The thought of professional golf continuing to thrive in a city that has such a storied tradition of hosting the best players in the world warms my heart. Good news becomes great news when shadows and dark clouds are everywhere over the horizon. 

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