American Century Championship: Celebrity golf tournament ‘getting better’ after 20 years | SierraSun.com

American Century Championship: Celebrity golf tournament ‘getting better’ after 20 years

Steve Yingling
Sun News Service

Michael Jordan hits out of a bunker on the 16th hole during a past American Century Championship. This year's celebrity tournament is July 13-18.

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – More and more people are taking notice of the American Century Championship. Can anything slow it down?

Despite a trying economic year for most Americans in 2009, attendance to the six-day tournament swelled by 20 percent as a record 37,205 spectators watched Rick Rhoden win his eighth overall title.

“It’s amazing how this event has evolved over the years. We are a lucky bunch of guys to be able to play in this every year,” Rhoden said. “It’s gone this well this long, and it only seems to be getting better every year.”

When the 2010 tournament’s practice rounds commence on Tuesday at Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course, the ACC faces a new obstacle as it prepares to present the 21st edition of the celebrity golf tournament.

For the first time in tournament history, the ACC will compete head-to-head with a PGA Tour event only 60 miles away. The Reno-Tahoe Open decided last November to move its tournament dates from early August to mid July, causing an initial rift between tourist and tournament officials.

The hard feelings have since been softened, but the jury is out on which tournament might be impacted more by the dueling events.

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“It caught us off guard,” said Carol Chaplin, the executive director for the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority. “In the end we put our heads down and focused on what is going to be a win-win for everybody.

“I know we are going to be successful. We are so unique. It will be interesting to see if we get any overflow from their event or vice versa.”

In past years, the ACC’s competition has mainly been for TV audiences – namely viewers of the British Open. But since the British Open concludes its TV coverage in the morning, fans have been able to watch both in the same day. Between NBC, ESPN2 and ESPN3, the three-day tournament will receive nine hours of live and three hours of taped coverage.

NBC has once again massaged the 80-player field, bringing in 11 new participants, including NBA All-Star guard Chris Paul, Golden State Warriors’ rookie pure shooter Stephen Curry, All-Pro sack master Jared Allen, 300-game winner Greg Maddux and American Idol winner Taylor Hicks.

Houston Rockets’ guard Shane Battier won’t forget his tournament debut last year and is looking forward to a better showing this July.

“I went in like a deer in the headlights, and I was embarrassed to be honest,” Battier said. “I was teeing off with a 5-iron most of the time, and the course wore me down.

“I’m excited about (achieving) a top-70 finish,” Battier said.

Add to the new mix present-day headliners like Tony Romo, Jason Kidd, Ray Romano, Bode Miller, Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan, and there are celebrity entries appealing to the masses.

Kidd, like many of the participants, doesn’t come into the tournament with unreasonable expectations.

“I just want to be in the top 50,” he said. “I don’t hit a driver. I just hit a 3-wood because I can’t hit a driver. It can get you in a lot of trouble.”

The $600,000 ACC is as much about the old as it is the new. Regulars Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, John Elway and Jerry Rice give the event wide-ranging star quality that other sporting events can’t rival. Boxing icon Oscar de la Hoya and former Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz return after long absences.

As much as the tournament is about the big names, the ACC has become about the fans – especially at the 17 hole. The par-3 hole is short on distance but not on partygoers. Boats now pack the hot spot on Lake Tahoe, creating an atmosphere and vibe that the stars have come to appreciate.

“I like it. Aside from the tennis players, we’ve all played in front of crowds that are rambunctious,” Rhoden said. “You know when you go to 17 now, it’s going to be loud. It’s not like they are going to stop making noise because we want to hit a golf ball.”

Actor Kevin Nealon, who won’t participate this year, agrees with Rhoden.

“I perform better with an audience. That’s what I’m used to,” Nealon said. “If I was going to be better on a hole, it would be with an audience.”

Not that an unruly gallery can throw Rhoden off his golf game. The former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher has won eight championships, including the past two. A third straight title would be unprecedented territory, for even Rhoden.

“That’s a tough thing to do. I’ve never won two in a row until last year,” said Rhoden, who was unable to qualify for the 2010 U.S. Senior Open and was runner-up to actor Jack Wagner in May at the Cox Celebrity Championship hosted by Drew Brees. “Golf is a funny sport. You can’t always play well when you want to.”

Rhoden realizes his list of challengers is more talented than ever. Romo has finished runner-up and third the past two years, Dan Quinn is a four-time champion, Billy Joe Tolliver is the only other celebrity to win the event multiple times, Wagner, as noted, won the only celebrity tournament this season, Rice and Marshall Faulk are much improved, and Elway has been itching to win this championship for two decades.

“I fully expect Tony Romo to win this tournament one day,” Rhoden said. “He has a lot of talent, and he could win this tournament any year.”

Quinn becomes more of a curiosity entering his 20th ACC after spending part of the past year caddying for Ernie Els, one of the world’s top golfers.

“My schedule was set up so I’d have a couple of months to play a lot of golf,” said Quinn, who has been splitting the caddy duties for Els with Ricci Roberts. “I feel very good, I worked very hard and I’ve played a lot of golf. I feel as I prepared as I’ve been in five or six years.”

It’s been six years since Quinn won his fourth title, so No. 5 could be forthcoming.

ACC tickets are on sale online at tahoecelebritygolf.com. Tickets can be purchased daily at the front gate, starting at 7 a.m. Prices are $15 daily for Tuesday through Thursday’s action and $25 per day Friday through Sunday. Children 10 and under are admitted free with a paying adult, with a two-child maximum.

For fans who want to catch the whole tournament, a season badge is available for $60.