American Century Championship turns 20; kicks off this week |

American Century Championship turns 20; kicks off this week

STATELINE, Nev. and#8212; No matter what NBC does to give the American Century Championship a fresh look, some things haven’t changed in the 20-year history of the celebrity golf event.

Defending champion Rick Rhoden has claimed the title in seven of the 18 years he has participated. Once again the former major league pitcher is the favorite at 9-5 to win the $600,000 championship Friday through Sunday at Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course.

As it has in the past, NBC has infused a cache of new celebrities, including a few from off the mainstream path, into the 80-player field: Mixed Martial Arts star Chuck Liddell and pro poker player Daniel Negreanu are among the rookies. Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith, former NBA All-Star Alonzo Mourning, Super Bowl runner-up coach Ken Whisenhunt of the Arizona Cardinals, former all-star outfielder Joe Carter, Jacksonville Jaguars’ coach Jack Del Rio and former Chicago Bears’ standout defensive end Richard Dent are also new to the event.

Mourning, now the Miami Heat’s vice president of player programs and development, isn’t worried about how he’ll handle the pressure of putting his golf game out for public display.

and#8220;There will be the butterfly factor: Don’t shank it, just hit it straight,and#8221; he said. and#8220;Once you get that first swing in and hit a good shot, it’s like a jump ball or getting that first rebound or blocked shot; once you get into a little rhythm or flow, the crowds won’t be that much of a factor.and#8221;

One rookie that could make an immediate impact in the modified Stableford format is Whisenhunt, who grew up around the theater that is the Masters and is a scratch player.

Of course the 54-hole tournament can count on its regular megastars such as Charles Barkley, Michael Jordan, John Elway, Tony Romo, Ray Allen, Mario Lemieux, Jerry Rice, Ray Romano, Marcus Allen and Jason Kidd.

Eight of the nine former champions have been invited, including Rhoden, Chris Chandler, Jack Wagner, Billy Joe Tolliver, Dan Quinn, Al Del Greco, Lemieux and Mark Rypien. Only Dick Anderson, a defensive back on the Miami Dolphins’ 1972 unbeaten team, hasn’t been welcomed back for several years.

A few stars will return to the tournament after long absences. Bill Laimbeer, who helped the tournament gain early notoriety and has a pond guarding the 18th green named after him, is back in the field for the first time since 2001. Laimbeer recently resigned as coach of the WNBA’s Detroit Shock, a team he led to three championships.

Also back is former Miami Dolphins’ quarterback Dan Marino. The Hall of Famer has played only once since 2001, and the former Dolphins’ gunslinger was a factor the last time he participated in 2005, finishing ninth.

The only woman in the field is Janet Gretzky, wife of National Hockey League great Wayne Gretzky, who is also expected to play. If she plays, Janet Gretzky may be remembered as being tougher than Tiger Woods. She tore an ACL prior to this weekend’s Wayne Gretzky Celebrity Classic in Ontario but planned to play all four rounds.

One of the biggest story lines heading into this year’s event is will Barkley play any better and has he shed the worst swing in golf? During most of the spring, Barkley was receiving pointers from Woods’ swing coach Hank Haney. Barkley, looking to lose his hideous stop-and-hitch swing, made his first appearance Thursday in Gretzky’s tournament. If Barkley can pull out of the ACC cellar, that might be a bigger story than who actually wins the 20th championship.

American Century Investments begins its 11th year of sponsoring the star-studded event and is committed to the championship through 2012.

and#8220;It’s an outstanding place for us to be. We feel incredibly welcomed by the community, the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority, Harrah’s and certainly the folks here at Edgewood,and#8221; said Mark Killen, chief marketing officer for American Century Investments, during last year’s tournament.

For rookie spectators, the best time to collect celebrities’ autographs is during the practice rounds Tuesday through Thursday. Celebrities are advised not to sign while they are playing during the 54-hole tournament. There is a designated autograph signing area between the putting green and the clubhouse. Cameras and video recorders aren’t permitted once the tournament begins.

Tickets can be purchased daily and week-long passes are available. Practice-round tickets are $15 and tournament tickets are $25. Children 10 and under are admitted free with a paying adult (two per mom or dad). Gates open at 7 a.m. each day.

For fans who can’t attend the event, TV coverage is scheduled for 4-6 p.m. Friday on ESPN2. NBC takes over live coverage from noon to 3 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

Note: Future tournament dates have already been set: 2010, July 13-18; 2011, July 12-17; and 2012, July 17-22.

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