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What? There's a golf tournament during the Dinah Weekend?

PALM SPRINGS -- In the early '70s, Dinah Shore was at the top of her game.

She had already been a star for decades - well known initially as a richly rewarded torch singer throughout the '40s and '50s. She followed that up with two decades of television and variety show appearances before landing a wildly successful and syndicated television show of her own.

In 1972, she convinced Colgate, one of her TV sponsors, to join her in a new endeavor close to her heart - women's golf - and the Colgate Dinah Shore Golf Classic was born.

Played at the elusive Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage - not far from Dinah's home - the tournament would not become a major until 1983 but still attracted the stars of the LPGA, not only for its location but also for the connection to Dinah, herself.

In 1982, Colgate left as sponsor and Nabisco took over. A year later, the tournament became one of the four majors of the LPGA - and Nabisco has been involved ever since. The new name was the Nabisco Dinah Shore Championship.

What was also attracted to this golf tournament in the desert were the lesbians. Little did Dinah know that once she built it, they would come ... and come they did. In droves.

For that one week in late March every year, more and more lesbians began descending upon the Coachella Valley making their pilgrimage to watch women's golf at its finest. Palm Springs was a gay men's mecca back then; but there really wasn't much room for the ladies that were coming to town, so they congregated in small groups at their various hotels or on the golf course.

Stealing glances across the greens, their gaydar on full tilt, women made the connections and acknowledgements with the lift of a chin or a smile, but didn't have anywhere to meet as a group.

Soon promoters within the lesbian community came to recognize that they had a growing demographic on their hands and began to find ways to cater to it. Small, low-key hotel pool parties began brewing, lesbian comics were brought in, and dances were established.

Even an amateur golf tournament called the LinaShore got off the ground. Events began popping up all over town in an effort to draw the women in and give them a place to go when they were done watching golf all day.

The early promoters brought acts like Chaka Khan, Grace Jones and even Ellen - before she was out - to the desert to entertain the weekend crowd.

Suddenly going to the Dinah Shore golf tournament also meant indulging in a lesbian weekend getaway in Palm Springs, thus the original coining of the term The Dinah Shore Weekend.

As these events began to take shape and garner attention, neither Dinah nor the LPGA were happy about their growing association with lesbians. They were also not too pleased to know that the latest water-cooler joke was that LPGA actually stood for Lesbian Professional Golf Association. THAT even made the dozens of closeted lesbians on the tour nervous.

Patty Sheehan came out, as did others. Rosie Jones finally came out years later. There were many others on the tour who we knew were but they remained closeted, and that was OK, too. Still others we just liked to watch as they drove that little white ball down the fairways in their fancy outfits.

The silence of the crowd, the loud whhh-isk of the club, the smack of the ball, the splash in a water hazard or roll in the sand; the drop in the hole. All in all, lesbians just love golf - oh, and polo shirts.

In 1988, Amy Alcott (ssshhhh - yes) made the tournament even more interesting, when she spontaneously made a running leap into the pond at the 18th hole to celebrate her second win. Before the 1991 tournament began, Dinah told Amy that if she won her third championship that year, she'd jump in the pond, too. Amy won - and Dinah stood by her word, jumping in the muck right alongside Amy and her caddie.

The pond is cleaned just before the tournament each year, since the "pond jump" is now a ritual for all winners. Also called The Ladies of the Lake, the theatrics of the celebratory leap have since turned it into the grand finale of the tournament, known as the "Champion's Leap."

There are rumors that Kraft considered pulling its sponsorship due to the "lesbo effect" and it was well-known that Dinah publicly announced her distaste for the lesbian association with her name. She's probably rolling over in her grave knowing that today, if you Google her name, you will find 20 pages of hits on the cottage industry the weekend has become, all showing up before anything even remotely related to her does. Undeterred by the negative vibes and press, the lesbians kept right on coming and the weekend kept getting bigger.

In the early 1990s, Mariah Hanson of Club Skirts - a promotion company out of the San Francisco area - stepped in and decided to bring all these disconnected events together under one guise. She is the founder of the modern day Dinah Shore Weekend, which she calls The Dinah.

A year later she was joined by Sandy Sachs and Robin Gans of Girl Bar and for 14 years they collectively pushed the bar higher and higher as bigger and better venues and entertainment were coordinated.

In 2005, they struck back out on their own and now co-exist that week, divvying up the clientele between their two series of parties.

These days, the "weekend" has crept backward, further and further into the "week." Events now kick-off on Wednesday, and why not? The golf tournament's Pro-Am begins on Tuesday; but then again, who really cares about the golf? Not many of today's attendees even know that Dinah Shore was a real person.

So what started out as a few, fun-loving lesbians making the trek to the desert in pursuit of great golf has truly now become a cottage industry and the largest lesbian gathering in the world.

The Palm Springs Visitors Bureau recently put the number of lesbians now descending upon the Coachella Valley at 15,000 - and a great many of those don't even know that a ladies professional golf tournament is happening on the other side of the valley. With all the fun and excitement going on at the pool parties these days, even if they knew about the tournament, we don't think they'd care.

After all - when you are out, loud, proud and 20-something - who wants to watch a little white ball drop in a hole when you can spend the day drinking and dancing with 5,000 scantily clad women around a pool?

But for older generations of lesbians, many of us are quite content to watch, admire, walk and even volunteer at the LPGA tourney (now known as the Kraft Nabisco Championship) and we pay homage knowing that golf - and Dinah herself - is the original reason for the season.

Tournament play begins Thursday, April 1, and runs through Sunday, April 4.

Dinah passed away in 1994 and her name was finally removed from the tournament's title in 2000. When that happened, a ripple affect of disbelief traveled throughout the community. A tide had turned, a chapter had closed, but her legacy does live on; just not necessarily in the way she would have hoped. I make it a point to wear my Dinah pin every year and educate a younger person.

For me personally, I still enjoy the lasting, boundless energy of all the parties and debauchery - but there really IS something about that little white ball that I just can't get enough of.

Morgan M. Hurley is the Copy Editor for SDGLN. She can be reached at (877) 727-5446, x710 or at morgan@sdgln.com.