The Firefighter: Gary Klasse is Ready to Pass the Baton After 50 Years Helming the Socal Firemen’s Golf Association Tournament at Pebble Beach
From siren to Srixon, hose to hosel, pump to pitching wedge, Gary Klasse knows how to put out fires. Klasse (pronounced “classy”), a San Clemente-based retired firefighter who turns 83 next January, is nowadays preparing for something special: the 50th annual SoCal Firemen’s Golf Association tournament at Pebble Beach GL, which he’s organized and anchored since the event’s early years.
Played across two days on Pebble and Spyglass Hill GC on Thanksgiving weekend, the 200-person, team best-ball event is, according to the SoCal Firemen’s Golf Assn., Pebble’s longest continuously running tournament, save for the PGA Tour’s yearly AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, which dates to its Bing Crosby/SoCal roots in 1937.
“Gary’s name describes him,” says Hank Raymond, a retired fire captain from Orange County who has known Klasse for 45 years. “He’s calm, cool, confident and great at organizing. Things don’t go your way sometimes when you’re putting on an event, but Gary doesn’t get upset. He goes with the flow, figures things out.”
An LA-area firefighter from 1968-1996, Klasse started his career at Station 64 in Los Angeles, before ultimately working at seven different stations and holding the title of engineer, where he was the driver of the fire trucks for the last 18 years of his career. During his time at the wheel, the firefighter’s flexible schedule and community standing allowed him the opportunity to play a host of the city’s most storied clubs.
From red trucks to red numbers, NorCal to SoCal, Klasse has shown a penchant for organizing. He and Raymond roll back to the days when Klasse would coordinate the Firemen’s Olympic Games (both summer and winter) and, in concert with his Pebble work, Klasse has put together no shortage of golf trips, ranging from Scotland to Canada to Hawaii.
Yet, a combination of Pebble’s aspirational turf and the event’s historic longevity finds the Firefighter’s tournament holding a singular, if not soulful, place for the man behind nearly a half-century of coordinating.
“It’s just evolved, and I love to organize things,” says Klasse, adding that it took about 15 years of coordinating the event for it to run as smoothly as it does today. For the former fireman, a kinship exists between his former livelihood and his ongoing Pebble passion.
“Teamwork is a key for both,” he says. “It takes more than one person to organize a good golf tournament, just like it takes a team to put out a fire.”
Once playing to as low as a 5-handicap, Klasse further sees a connection between firefighter and golf. “The personality, the calmness required to do our jobs correctly, that helps make us good golfers,” he adds.
Razor-sharp in mind, to visit with Klasse is to grasp how he’s managed a 50-year tournament: He talks fast, thinks fast and he’s damn good with numbers, along with managing people and time.
50 Years of Memories
Klasse estimates he’s spent approximately five hours a week in his coordinating duties. Having worked the lead role since 1976, that puts his time invested in the Pebble tourney at over 11,000 hours.
“Gary is a real pleasure to work with and he’s super-organized, a wonderful planner, a wonderful person and he has a real love for the tournament,” says Jayne Hankison, national sales manager for the Pebble Beach Company, with whom Klasse has worked on the event for over three decades. “Gary does his very best trying to create value for the guests that come. And he makes great decisions. In my experience, he makes a decision and moves on, so he gets a lot of work done and we very much appreciate his business.”
Not that Klasse sees the job as actual work, even if that means eschewing modern tools for what he deems more efficient methods of organizing.
“We used to send little flyers out to 30 different fire stations that were involved. Today, I still do it the same way to a degree with the initial entry sheet,” says Klasse, adding that the early days had an entry fee of $100, which included lodging. “I do use the computer for room assignments and those type of things, but I also have a master sheet that I number each team from 1-100, and I do that with pencil and paper, because the groups have to order if they want extra golf, practice rounds and what package they want, depending on who they might be bringing along and certain groups they might have playing together. If I did all that on the computer, it would be a mess.”
Keeping things tidy on-course has also proven a Klasse mainstay. Across nearly 70 rounds, he prides a lifetime, eclectic golf score at Pebble of 51, with includes birdies recorded on every hole, multiple eagles on the par-5 second, an eagle on the par-5 sixth and an especially memorable “2” on the par-4 15th in 1983.
“I hit a wedge that moved sideways (on the green) and went right into the hole for an eagle,” smiles Klasse, adding that he donned knickers that year. “And there’s some VHS video of me running up to the hole. So, I made eagle there almost 20 years before Tiger did at the AT&T.”
Amid the celebrations come the sweet and the solemn. “I think about the last time I played with my dad there; it was 1983 and he passed in ’84,” Klasse remembers. “I always think about Jim Nantz saying that, how he always thinks about his dad when he’s playing Pebble Beach. That’s what I do, too.”
Perils of the trade considered, annual remembrances of those lost preempt the swings, just as event donations go to families of firefighters who have lost their lives.
“We always have a prayer and a little announcement before we tee off, remembering any firefighters colleagues who have passed,” says Klasse. “And we’ll celebrate their life at that moment.”
After enjoying the 50th — a feat which will be acknowledged by a commemorative marker-coin designed by Raymond — Klasse is readying to pass the organizer’s baton to fireman Mark Zizi, who he’s long groomed for the gig. Klasse plans to assist with consulting, however, as the gathering continues to bring benefits beyond the scorecard.
“It keeps me going and it keeps me young. I still very much look forward to being there, playing there, doing the awards, the cocktail party,” says Klasse. “Every year during the awards ceremony, I always mention how glad I am to see so many fathers and sons playing together or brothers players together or grandfathers and grandsons; the family aspect is just such a special part of the tournament.”
With Klasse’s final year at the helm comes a 50th anniversary wish. “Jim Nantz, if he’s there, if he doesn’t have an NFL broadcast that weekend, I’d like to have him come over for 10 minutes and say a few words to us,” Klasse concludes. “He knows about us there, so if he’s up there, that’s a request I’m gonna put in for the 50th. That’s my dream.”