The Clown Prince of Golf
George Lopez shows Pebble Beach how to have fun.
Thursday, February 8, 2007
The gallery surrounding the 15th tee is quiet—too quiet for George Lopez. So instead of addressing his ball, Lopez motions the silent gallery to life. With his encouragement, the fans that make up the famously-social “Club 15” rumble to raucous life, their Saturday-afternoon enthusiasm echoing around the surrounding Pebble Beach Golf Course.
The spontaneous moment quickly gets louder and more interesting. Throughout Del Monte Forest, golfers and spectators wonder what amazing bit of shot-making has taken place, but Lopez has yet to even line up his drive.
After finally settling over the ball, Lopez waggles his driver, exhales, and sweeps the oversized driver up into an off-tempo backswing.
Come Sunday, what happened next would be recalled as a defining moment of a 2006 event that officials would declare the most successful in the tournament’s storied 70-year history. And for Lopez, it would
represent a kind of coronation.
~ • ~
Three days earlier, Lopez was already at the center of AT&T-Pro-Am attention. Before him sat a Monterey Conference Center ballroom brimming with volunteer marshals, scorekeepers, and tournament sponsors. They were gathered for the annual Tee Off Party (formerly known as the Clambake), a happy variety act holdover from the Bing Crosby days, which stars celebrity entertainers who participate in the tournament, and salutes nearly 2,000 volunteers for their efforts. Though veteran funnymen including Ray Romano and Tom Dreesen also appeared, George Lopez’s riffs (on stuff like chaos at the Costco in Sand City and life in Pebble Beach) drew the heartiest laughs—for the second year in a row.
“I had guys doing my house in Pebble Beach,” Lopez told the crowd. “The guy is working in the yard and he’s never seen me. He sees me come out of the house and he’s like: ‘Hey, dee people don’t like it when we use dee bat-room inside. Go around.’ ”
The laughing volunteers in the audience would help make it possible for the Pro-Am to rake in $5.84 million for local charities in 2006. The record crowds would come to see stars like Lopez, who loves the place so much that he has made a home here since 2003.
“He really likes it here—he’d like to be here more,” says Ollie Nutt, president and CEO of the Monterey Peninsula Foundation, which runs the Pro-Am. “Clint [Eastwood] is kind of his idol in that respect, having been able to center his life here.”
Pebble Beach is a long ways from the San Fernando Valley, where Lopez was raised by his grandparents. He’s used his tough childhood experience to help pull himself up, and not just in the traditional sense—he uses it as much for material as for motivation.
On Why You Crying, his 2004 Showtime special, he recalls those early days.
“ ‘Chuck E. Cheese?’ ” he imitates his grandma saying, “ ‘You want to see a mouse? Lift up the refrigerator.’ ”
Lopez even pulls his daughter into his wicked reminiscing. “The way we raise kids now is completely different,” he says on his new CD El Mas Chingon (loosely translated, The Baddest Motherf#*%er). “I have a 10-year-old daughter that wouldn’t last one day in my childhood.
“ ‘I’m bored!’ ” Lopez mocks, before shifting into his Grandma’s voice to re-enact what she would have said if he announced such a thing.
“ ‘Mira cabrón,’ ” he mimics (smacking the mic with a boom!). “ ‘You’re bored? Getta newspaper and kill dee flies.’
“Man, I used to chase a fly for four f#*%ing hours with a LA Times rolled up…
“And the fact that [my daughter] gets an allowance?…she doesn’t do sh*t. (Then grandma’s voice) ‘I allow you to live...’ ”
Lopez worked the national stand-up circuit for two decades before his big break came when he appeared on the “Arsenio Hall Show” in the early ’90s. These days, he’s doing OK, as he told People magazine.
“As a Chicano, I never thought that I would live in a house that the Olsen twins once lived in,” he said. “Maybe I’d work on their house or put in a pool, but to live in it? Wow!”
But life at the top hasn’t been all private swimming pools and golf tournaments. The same family legacy that provides Lopez with so much fodder for his comedy also left him with a genetic condition that caused his kidney to deteriorate. In April 2005, he underwent a transplant, with a donated organ from his wife Ann. It hasn’t slowed Lopez down much—it has only offered him more material.
“That’s heavy sh*t: to get part of your body from someone else and put it in your body—I got a great wife, ” he jokes on Chingon. “It helps that she has big chi-chis.”
Though he struggles with some of his doctor’s orders—“What am I supposed to do, not drink at the Laker games?”—he reports that his health is good.
His career is certainly healthy. His stand-up tours consistently sell out. A new release titled Balls of Fury is due out in September, in which he plays an FBI-ally to Randy Daytona (breakout comedic star Dan Fogler) as Daytona tries to infiltrate a crime ring run by a Chinese underlord (Christopher Walken) by winning a triumph-or-die ping-pong tournament. Meanwhile, Lopez is also working with HBO on a major live comedy special called “George Lopez, America’s Mexican: Star Spanglish Banter.” It’s set to air Feb. 24.
Then there’s the sitcom he co-created, ABC’s “George Lopez Show,” just starting its sixth season, where he also serves as a writer, producer and star.
Despite all the projects, Lopez says his identity hasn’t much changed. “Really, with everything else going on in my career,” he says, “I think of myself as a stand-up comedian first.”
But amidst a relentless schedule, Lopez always finds time for golf. Georgelopez.com betrays his loyalties: While his recent CDs, DVDs and upcoming movie get some run, the page is dominated by frames from the fairway—pictures of Lopez with Samuel Jackson and “my PGA Tour Homeboy Mike Weir,” clips of AT&T Pro-Am highlights, and notes on his new leadership role at The Bob Hope Chrysler Classic in Palm Desert as an official host.
“A Chicano hosting a PGA TOUR event,” the posting reads. “Wow, think of that...when you can get into ‘The Whitest Sport’ and end up hosting your own tour event... hey when you can do that you are...EL MAS CHINGON!!!!
“If you’re out there, and you get a chance, I’m inviting you down to come party with us, it’s gonna be like a golfers spring break! Expect (sic) we’re too old to overturn any cars, we might just bend the mirrors.”
Toting what he calls his “Mexican driving whaapaah,” Lopez isn’t bad. A 15-ish handicap, he has finished as loftily as third overall amongst amateurs at the AT&T—in 2004, with
Nutt thinks Lopez’s jovial approach is key to his success on the course.
“He just really enjoys the game,” Nutt says. “He’s easygoing about it, doesn’t grind on himself and doesn’t take himself too seriously.”
But Lopez wasn’t named to Time magazine’s 2005 list of the 25 most influential Latino-Americans for his quips or his chips. The George and Ann Lopez-Richie Alarcon CARE Foundation is a powerful nonprofit supporting arts education in Southern California. Lopez has received the Manny Mota Foundation Community Spirit Award, and was named Honorary Mayor of Los Angeles for his extensive fundraising efforts benefiting earthquake victims in El Salvador and Guatemala. In February 2004, he was presented the 2004 Artist of the Year and Humanitarian Award by Harvard University.
His contributions have been similarly powerful locally, through groups like First Tee, Make-a-Wish Foundation and the local chapter of the National Kidney Foundation.
Pacific Grove art gallery owner Lisa Coscino has been friends with the Lopezes for more than five years, and is currently showing some of their private art collection in an exhibit called Demasiado.
“They are super-amazing humanitarians,” Coscino says. “They’re the real article when it comes to being involved and giving back. They’re amazing people.
“When I see George at an event that he’s showing up for to lend support, it’s 110 percent.”
At the AT&T, that places Lopez as a perennial at the 3M Celebrity Challenge (his chosen charities last year were Artists for a New South Africa and Southern California Kidney Foundation) and the Clambake.
“He definitely wants to give back,” Nutt says. “It is satisfying to see guys like this do want to give back to the local agencies.”
~ • ~
Back at the 15th, the crowd exults as loudly as any Pebble Beach has ever heard. Sure, Lopez has borrowed a page from the master’s playbook—Bill Murray has made a habit of amping up Pro-Am audiences before pressure shots—but the next sequence is without precedent.
Lopez is into his over-eager backswing, drawing back his driver with deceptive athleticism.
At impact, the crowd is loud. As the drive explodes off the club face and into the fat part of the fairway, the noise shakes pine needles from nearby branches and curious people from the Porta-Potties.
It’s a beautiful golf shot. Lopez holds his follow-through for a long moment, then suddenly snaps the club forward with a melodramatic flourish, throwing his arms high and wide to the sky as the club flips in the air in front of him. As he turns toward the denizens of Club 15, he hesitates for a split second, then trots toward the crowd.
One moment he is angling at the delirious gallery. Then suddenly, improbably, he is on top of them. Crowd-surfing. At a golf tournament. The coronation occurs in this moment: The clown prince has taken to his chariot of arms and hands, a supremely popular participant in a supremely popular event. Everyone within view is grinning uncontrollably, but it’s Lopez’s Cheshire smile that suggests he is having the most fun of all.