The Sentry Tournament of Champions, the first PGA Tour event of 2023, celebrates its 25th season at Kapalua this week.
The tournament dates back to 1953, however, when it was first played in Las Vegas. It was held at the Desert Inn and the field consisted of 20 golfers, all winners from the previous year.
The winner’s check in 2023 will be $2,700,000 (out of an elevated-event purse of $15 million) but 71 years ago, Al Besselink, winner of the first Tournament of Champions, barely earned five figures.
How he was paid—and what he did with some of the money—are just some of the many interesting things about him.
Silver dollars delivered in a wheelbarrow
Wilbur Clark’s Desert Inn hotel and swimming pool in Las Vegas on March 26, 1953. (Photo: Associated Press)
The Desert Inn opened in 1950 and was the fifth major resort on the Las Vegas Strip. Frank Sinatra made his Vegas debut there in 1951.
In 1953, the D.I., as it was dubbed, hosted the first Tournament of Champions, and when Albert Cornelius Besselink won by a shot over Charlie Harper, his first-place prize of $10,000 was delivered in a wheelbarrow full of silver dollar coins.
Besselink made an additional $12,500 for his win after placing a $500 bet on himself at 25 to 1 odds.
More than two decades later, Besselink’s Vegas victory got demoted. According to si.com, during the Deane Beman era as PGA Tour commissioner, the TOC win was declared an unofficial victory.
As for the Desert Inn, it closed in 2000 and was finally demolished in 2004.
The remaining towers of the Desert Inn Hotel are imploded on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2004, in Las Vegas. (Photo: Joe Cavaretta/Associated Press)
Long list of famous friends
Louis Suggs, Sam Byrd, Babe Ruth, Al Besselink and Babe Zaharias compete in a benefit golf tournament for the Ruth Cancer Fund Golf on Feb. 29, 1948. (Photo: Earl Shugars/Associated Press)
Besselink was known for living—and loving—the high life.
Besselink, 6-feet-4 with wavy blonde hair, ran in famous social circles, too. In 1948, he appeared in the Ruth Cancer Fund Golf tournament alongside Babe Zaharias, Louis Suggs, Sam Byrd and baseball legend Babe Ruth.
In 1952, Besselink teamed up with Babe Zaharias to win a mixed event in Orlando.
After his Tournament of Champions win, he donated half of the $10,000 prize to cancer research when Zaharias was battling the disease.
New Jersey to Florida and beyond
Dow Finsterwald folds up a $3,500 check after winning $27,000 in the Greater New Orleans Open on April 24, 1960. Al Besselink (right) finished in second place. (Photo: Associated Press)
Besselink grew up in New Jersey and later played college golf at the University of Miami, where he graduated in 1949. His started playing full-time on the PGA Tour in 1950, and entered his last event in 1983.
In addition to his TOC win, the PGA Tour credits him with three other wins: the 1952 Sioux City Open, the 1957 Kansas City Open Invitational and the 1964 Azalea Open Invitational.
He also played in three Masters Tournaments, finishing third in 1953. Besselink was among the golfers to start the PGA Tour Champions circuit.
Besselink lived to 93, when he died in April of 2017 in Florida.