STATELINE, Nev. (AP) — After struggling in the U.S. Senior Open a week ago, Rick Rhoden was back in his element Saturday — atop the leaderboard of the celebrity golf tournament he’s won six times.
The former major league pitcher went birdie-birdie-eagle during one stretch on the way to a 5-under 67 worth 51 points in the modified Stableford scoring system at the 18th annual American Century Celebrity Golf Championship at Lake Tahoe.
Ex-NHL great Grant Fuhr was second with 48 points, followed by former quarterbacks Chris Chandler and Mark Rypien with 47 headed into Sunday’s final round at Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course. The scoring system awards six points for eagle, three for birdie, one for par, zero for bogey and minus two for double bogey or worse.
Last week in his third U.S. Senior Open, the 54-year-old Rhoden shot 75-76 to miss the cut by three strokes at the links-style Whistling Straits and its 1,000-plus bunkers on the shores of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin.
“That’s the hardest course I’ve ever played, by far,” Rhoden said. “I’ve played Oakmont and it’s not even close.
“So I think visually, you show up here and it looks 10 times easier after playing there,” he said about the Edgewood layout with its lush, forgiving fairways winding through towering pines.
Rhoden was ineligible to play at Lake Tahoe last year because he qualified for conditional status on the PGA Champions Tour. He won the celebrity event in 1991-93-95-97-99 and 2003.
“Obviously, Rick’s probably the best player out here. So he’ll be a fun guy to chase,” said Fuhr, who had four birdies and two bogies on Saturday in a round of 71. “You know Rick is not going to beat himself. That’s something he’s proved over the years.”
After parring the first hole Saturday, Rhoden played the next three holes 4-under par, hitting a 6 iron 185 yards to within 2 feet of the hole on the 536-yard, par-5 fifth. He also birdied the eighth and then parred every hole on the back.
“I feel a lot better leaving today than I did yesterday, that’s for sure,” said Rhoden, who shot a 72 on Friday and started the day four points behind first-round leader Billy Joe Tolliver.
Tolliver, another ex-quarterback, has won the tournament twice. He shot 70 and tallied 28 points Friday, but had only 15 points on a round of 76 Saturday for a two-day total of 41.
Defending champ Jack Wagner had 42 points and Dan Quinn, a four-time celebrity champ, had 36. Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, making his tourney debut, shot 68 Saturday for a two-day total of 40 points.
Rypien, playing in the same group with Rhoden, trailed him by 10 points at the turn on Saturday, but had three birdies on the back to finish with a 67 and pull within four points of the leader.
“It’s nice to be around the leaderboard again,” said Rypien, who won the inaugural event in 1990. “I’ve had 10 birdies in two days and I think that’s more than I’ve had in three years.
“Rick was going to run away with this thing and he was gracious enough to par everything coming home. … It’s not a good sign when he says he’s feeling good.”
While Rhoden was getting down to business, many of the competitors signed programs, shirts and hats between holes. Carson Palmer threw a football he, Romo and Jerry Rice had autographed to a man on a boat anchored just off the par 3, 17th. Earlier, Rice threw his hat down in mock disgust when an announcer introduced him not as a future hall of famer but a star of “Dancing With the Stars.”
Charles Barkley, in last place with minus 63 points, had to take a two-stroke penalty on his first hole when he whiffed a shot in the fairway. His next shot hit a tree and his drive on the next hole hooked into the gallery, narrowly missing the spectators.
Ray Romano, the Emmy Award winning star of the long-running sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond,” did manage to hit a young man when his shot went wide of the par-5 16th skipped off a cart path.
“Are you all right?” he asked the victim. “I’m unemployed now, so there’s no money.”