STATELINE, Nev. (AP) For the first time in its 18-year history, the defending champion of the annual celebrity golf tournament at Lake Tahoe beginning Friday is not a quarterback, pitcher, hockey player or defensive back.
He's an actor, albeit an athletic one who once won the pro-am title at the AT&T Pebble Beach Classic with PGA pro John Cook.
"I've never had to defend up here before," said Jack Wagner, the longtime star of the "Bold and the Beautiful" who won the $100,000 first-prize check at last year's American Century Celebrity Golf Championship.
"So I'm just kind of starting this whole thing anew. I'm sort of pretending last year didn't happen," he said.
The 54-hole tournament at Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course runs through Sunday on the shores of the azure mountain lake. This year's purse has been upped $100,000 to $600,000, with $125,000 going to the winner.
The field of 81 past and present athletes, entertainers and other celebrities includes Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, John Elway, Mike Schmidt, Mario Lemeiux, Jason Kidd, Jerry Rice, Carson Palmer, Dan Quayle and Ray Romano.
"This is our 18th year and it's grown every year, but this I think we can honestly say is our biggest year ever," said Jon Miller, vice president of NBC Sports, which televises Saturday's and Sunday's rounds. ESPN2 is carrying Friday's opening round.
Newcomers include Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, ex-Steelers running back Jerome Bettis and actor Chris Tucker.
Some of the competitors clearly are in the field for their star power, not their golf swings. Barkley and Chris Webber have been known to hit a spectator or two with errant shots as they battle over a wager of who will finish worse.
Last year, actor Matthew Settle drove his ball through the windshield of a boat that was anchored along the par-3 17th hole.
As has become tradition, the local casino sports books list Barkley as the longest shot in the field at 500-to-1 odds.
"Charles should give up," said Rice, the former wide receiver for the San Francisco 49ers who takes the tournament seriously. He looks forward to renewing his rivalry with Jordan.
"I want to take Michael down, and I'm sure Michael wants to do the same thing with me," Rice said. "I can't just enjoy golf if I don't play well. It's just my competitive nature."
Palmer said he enjoys Tahoe's beauty regardless of his play, but agrees the competitive juices start flowing as soon as he steps on the course.
"I'll never be a great golfer, I'll never play on tour. But it's always something to challenge yourself and see how good you can actually get. Really, it's the most challenging sport I've ever participated in."
Rick Rhoden, the former major league pitcher who has won at Tahoe a record six times and is the 6-5 favorite to do it again this weekend, is back in the field after being ineligible last year because he had earned conditional status on the PGA Champions Tour.
Last week, he played in his third U.S. Senior Open, missing the cut by three strokes at Whistling Straits in Haven, Wis.
He'll challenge Wagner, who in addition to winning at Pebble Beach in 1991 has won six club championships at Bel Air Country Club in Los Angeles. He's finished in the Top 10 at Tahoe 13 times, including one second and two thirds.
"Last year is one of the years where I just held it together coming in, and previous years I haven't," Wagner said. "This golf tournament comes down to nerves because so many guys have short irons into a lot of these holes coming in and it's really about keeping your nerve on the greens. And last year I finally did it."
Like many an athlete, Wagner admits he's a bit superstitious.
"Those shorts I wore all week last year, I'm looking for them. They haven't been washed. They haven't been touched," he said.
Wagner is bringing back another good luck charm his caddie, son Peter, 16, and said he may seek some advice from his girlfriend, Heather Locklear.
"Her greatest strength on the golf course is obviously wardrobe, which I try to work on myself," Wagner joked. "I've gone in her closet and found some things I like, but she doesn't think they will fit."