Big changes over 3 decades at Lake Tahoe celebrity golf tournament | SierraSun.com

Big changes over 3 decades at Lake Tahoe celebrity golf tournament

Bill Rozak
Special to the Sierra Sun

STATELINE, Nev. — Three decades ago, a three-bedroom, two-bathroom dream cabin at Lake Tahoe went for about $125,000, there was no luxury hotel at Edgewood Tahoe and maybe, just maybe, 5,000 fans would show up to what has become the American Century Championship celebrity golf tournament.

There have been big changes at Lake Tahoe’s signature summer event over the 30 years it has been in existence — and that same dream cabin is likely now somewhere around $600,000.

Actor/singer Jack Wagner has attended the event all 30 years, from when the tournament had no title sponsor when it began in 1990, to Isuzu taking the lead in 1993 before American Century took over in 1999.

He says one of the biggest changes he’s seen has been in demographics, especially when Justin Timberlake and Stephen Curry — this year’s headliners along with last year’s champion Tony Romo — began coming to the tournament a few years ago.

“Sometimes you lose celebrities over the years in terms of participation like when Michael Jordan stopped coming,” Wagner told the Tribune, and added that he compares the tournament to the U.S. Open or The Masters for celebrities. “How do you replace an A-list athlete or celebrity? When Justin and Steph came, it was interesting to watch the demographic change. Ticket sales have never been higher and it’s not just fans of golf. People come across the country to engage with the celebrities. I compare it to the Hallmark channel — it’s a fun loving, yet competitive sort of family weekend. There’s a lot of camaraderie.”

Wagner over the years says he has spent time boating on Lake Tahoe and has also done “the casino thing,” but the two-time (2006, 2011) champ’s focus is on golf and engaging with fans and sponsors.

“We take hundreds of selfies with fans over the week,” Wagner said. “This is what makes the tournament tick — the connection with fans, one on one with the fans. I think the fans can feel how happy the players are.”

Zephyr Cove resident and Vietnam veteran Dick Horn has volunteered at the event for the last 27 years and has seen the once fledgling event grow and change and the field of celebrities nearly double from 56 golfers to where it is this weekend, 93.

Horn, who sells insurance in South Lake Tahoe, was a walking scorer in his first year and has been co-marshal since. He helps support and give directions to the 400 or so volunteers.

“My philosophy is that my business is in town, so I figured I could do something for my community,” Horn said. “The biggest change I’ve seen has been toward families. It’s become an event where parents feel comfortable bringing their kids to sign autographs. It really has become family-oriented.”

He also has several memories from over the years, including the stir President Donald Trump created with Stormy Daniels, some thunder and lightning storms, one where they had to evacuate the course when lightning struck hole No. 10 and the impact Charles Barkley has made.

“I’ve seen Charles Barkley come off the golf course really mad and head straight over the old No. 9 green (where Edgewood opened a luxury hotel in 2017) with a chair and one security guard and sign autographs for kids for two hours. He’s a pretty good guy and has helped out this community a ton.”

The 30th ACC event is being celebrated as the Year of the Volunteer.

“The staff of nearly 400 community-minded, golf and celebrity-obsessed and good-hearted is the number one reason the event has been able to donate more than $5 million to the area and national charities and nonprofits through the years,” said Phil Weidinger, who has been in charge of public relations for the past 28 years.

Weidinger said about 2,500 fans attended the inaugural event. Last year the ACC broke attendance records with over 50,000 people lining the course.

He added that Major League Baseball locking out players in 1990 helped the event “catch lightning in a bottle.”

The tournament was stroke play until 2003 when the format was changed to stableford scoring and 489 players have participated over the years.

Weidinger said the event brings an estimated $30 million to Lake Tahoe and that NBC has to turn away about 100 celebrities who want to play.

“It was alternative programming for NBC,” Weidinger said. “After a couple of years, with NBC’s involvement — they now own the tournament — with their knowledge and capital and reputation, that was a big part of the success. Edgewood from Day 1 has been wonderful. It’s the partners working together and it’s the destination. Lake Tahoe lends itself to having a good time. We have huge names now and are not relying on a couple of big-named stars. And the people come out to see the stars, they make this tournament what it is and the community keeps building this thing year after year. This is one of those community events that helped put Tahoe on the map, and has kept it there.”

Bill Rozak is a reporter for the Tahoe Daily Tribune, a sister publication of the Sierra Sun based in South Lake Tahoe. Contact him at brozak@tahoedailytribune.com