STATELINE, Nev. (AP) — The celebrity golf championship celebrating its 20th anniversary at Lake Tahoe next weekend owes a lot of its success to baseball, and not just because ex-pitcher Rick Rhoden has won the event a record seven times.
It was NBC Sports’ decision in 1989 to end its contract with Major League Baseball to televise Saturday’s game of the week that led to the creation of the popular made-for-TV event that pairs sports stars with actors, entertainers and other celebrities.
“Dick Ebersol was the new CEO of NBC Sports and basically came and said, “We’ve got to find some programming to fill the void,”’ said Jon Miller, NBC Sports executive vice president.
“We put together the first Celebrity Golf Championship in Lake Tahoe in the summer of 1990 with 46 players and $400,000. Twenty years later, you can see where we are. It’s been a tremendous success. It continues to get bigger every year,” he said.
More than 70 golfers will be competing this year for the $600,000 purse and $100,000 winner’s check at the American Century Celebrity Golf Championship from July 17-19.
Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, John Elway, Jerry Rice, Charles Barkley, Dale Jarrett, Jason Kidd, Mario Lemieux, Marcus Allen, Ray Allen, Dan Marino, Lawrence Taylor and Emmitt Smith are among the annual fan favorites who will smack and hack their way around the 7,555-yard Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course on the shores of the azure lake in the Sierra Nevada.
Harrah’s Sports Book has made Rhoden a 9-5 favorite to win again this year, but Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo is close behind at 3-1. A scratch golfer, Romo played at a pro-am with Tiger Woods a week ago before the start of the AT&T National.
“It’s like the Super Bowl,” said Mark Rypien, the former Washington Redskins quarterback who won the inaugural event in 1990 – a year and a half before he was named the Super Bowl MVP in the Skins’ 37-24 win over Buffalo.
“It seems like it was yesterday, except there’s a few more guys that can hit it than there were the first couple of years,” said Rypien, who won the first tourney with a three-round total of 5-over 221.
“Now, that would get you about 20th place,” he said. “But I’m very fortunate to come here every year. It’s an opportunity to meet a bunch of athletes and entertainers in a world that you have always admired and seen on television.”
In addition to Rypien and defending champion Rhoden, other past champs in the field include ex-quarterbacks Chris Chandler (2007) and Billy Joe Tolliver (2005, 1996), ex-NHL stars Lemieux (1998) and Dan Quinn (2004, 2002, 2001 1992), ex-kicker Al Del Greco (2000), actor Jack Wagner (2006) and former Miami Dolphins safety Dick Anderson (1994).
Ex-NBA stars Alonzo Mourning and Anfernee Hardaway and current Houston Rockets forward Shane Battier are among those making their first appearance in the tournament.
“I’ve played in many pro-ams in my life, but this will probably be the most pressure-filled,” Battier said.
“It’s a much different pressure than sitting at half court of an NBA playoff game. I think it’s a little more intense to be on that first tee. … I anticipate some butterflies, but as long as I can get off the first tee, I’ll be fine,” he said.
Other newcomers include mixed martial arts star Chuck Liddell, Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith, Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio, Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk, former Bears All-Pro defensive end Richard Dent, Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, Patriots receiver Wes Welker and quarterbacks Derek Anderson, Trent Edwards, Matt Ryan, Matt Cassel and Matt Schwab.
“We have all three Matts who are starting quarterbacks in the NFL,” Jon Miller said.
Others in the field include pro poker player Daniel Negreanu, Olympic skier Bode Miller and former vice president Dan Quayle.
The cast of actors competing includes Anthony Anderson of “Law & Order,” Brian Baumgartner of “The Office,” Dennis Haysbert of “Major League” and “24,” Oliver Hudson of “Rules of Engagement,” Bruce McGill of “Animal House,” Kevin Nealon of “Saturday Night Live” and Alfonso Ribeiro of “Fresh Prince of Belair.”
Rhoden set the scoring record with a 9-under 207 in 1997 and Quinn tied it in 2001. Six years ago the tourney switched to a modified Stableford format that awards six points for an eagle, three for a birdie, one for par, none for bogey and minus-2 for double bogey or worse. Chandler holds that record with 78 points in 2007.
The change has been welcomed by some of the less-skilled players, such as Charles Barkley, who can pick up their ball after they reach double bogey without hacking their way toward a double-digit hole.
Barkley, who routinely finishes at or near the bottom of the pack, doesn’t mind that he’s a 499-1 long shot to win the tourney this year.
“Think about it. I’m playing golf with Trent Dilfer, Emmitt Smith – walking 18 holes in Lake Tahoe on a beautiful golf course on a beautiful sunny day,” he said.
“The next day I’m playing with Mario Lemieux and Michael Jordan. I mean, I’m very realistic. I’ve got a great, great life. Do I suck at golf? Yeah. But like the other 99.9 percent of my life is pretty damn good.”
On the Net:
American Century Celebrity Golf Championship: www.tahoecelebritygolf.com