Nerves on Display as Celebrity Tourney Opens

By  | 

STATELINE, Nev. (AP) - John Elway is one of the best golfers in the field of 75 sports stars and celebrities who begin play Friday in the 14th annual American Century Championship at Lake Tahoe.

But the former NFL great said he still gets more nervous on the 7,445-yard Edgewood-Tahoe Golf Course than he ever did leading the Denver Broncos to any of his five Super Bowls.

"I never got nervous when it was fourth-and-eight and you needed it. But every time I get over a 2-foot putt, I'm nervous," said Elway, who sports about a 2 handicap and tied for second in the 1999 tourney.

Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Jason Kidd, Scottie Pippin, Jerry Rice, Marcus Allen, Marshall Faulk, Johnny Bench and Mario Lemieux are among those competing in the three-day celebrity tournament with a $500,000 purse.

Two-time defending champion Dan Quinn, the former NHL star who has won the $100,000 first-place prize three times, and ex-Major League pitcher Rick Rhoden, a five-time winner, are the favorites again this year.

Rhoden is a scratch golfer trying to play his way onto the PGA Senior Tour, so his nerves have settled down over the years. But he remembers his early appearances at Tahoe when "the biggest concern was you didn't want to make a fool of yourself."

He tells the rookies to "just go out there and have a good time."

Easier said than done for Michael Wilbon, the Washington Post columnist and ESPN host playing Edgewood for the first time.

"Absolute terror. I'm completely out of my element," Wilbon said after a practice round Wednesday.

"I haven't played in front of a crowd in any type of athletic activity since high school," he said.

Jordan told him it will be the "most frightening four and one-half hours of your life," Wilbon said. He said he'll be thinking of only one thing on the first tee:

"Don't whiff."

Al Del Greco, the 2000 Tahoe champ, Joe Theismann and Steve Bartkowski are among the other top players who routinely compete in a half dozen events or so annually on the Celebrity Players Tour. Most consider the Tahoe tourney the highlight.

"It's the best tournament we play at all year. It's a great setting and everybody wants to go there and play well," Elway said.

Tournament officials said crowds were up at practice rounds Tuesday and Wednesday and that they may break last year's attendance record of 25,000.

"It's an event where people can get up close to their heroes," said Jon Miller, a senior vice president for NBC Sports, which televises the event Saturday and Sunday. ESPN has coverage Friday.

Organizers think a change in the scoring - to a modified Stableford system that takes the sting out of any score worse than a double bogey - helped attract some reluctant players.

Many perform well on their home course, but end up breaking 100 on the Par 72 course in front of a real gallery.

"Some of them have admitted they are a little afraid to put their game on display," Miller said.

Under the Stableford scoring, the most points win, awarded on the basis of: double eagle, 10 points; hole-in-one, 8 points; eagle, 6 points; birdie, 3 points; par, 1 point; bogey, zero points; double-bogey or worse, minus 2 points.

"It's a way for guys to come play and not have to worry about throwing a 95 up on the board each day," Miller said. "It's not quite as daunting."

Troy Aikman, Mark McGwire, Lou Holtz and Tyrone Willingham are making their Tahoe debut along with actor Dennis Quaid, comedian Dennis Miller, conservative broadcaster Rush Limbaugh and Michael O'Keefe, who played the caddie "Noonan" in the movie, "Caddyshack."

Lisa Fernandez, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in softball, will be the first woman to compete. Other Olympians include skier Bode Miller, speed skater Dan Jansen and Mike Eruzione, captain of the 1980 U.S. hockey team that beat Russia.

Former Vice President Dan Quayle and ex-Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura will represent the political ranks. There's a jockey, Corey Nakatani, and a pair of tennis greats in Pete Sampras and Ivan Lendl.

Other celebs include Jack Wagner, Kevin Nealon, Bruce McGill, John O'Hurley, Stone Phillips and Maury Povich.

There are more past and present NFL quarterbacks than any other profession - Aikman, Theismann, Bartkowski, Billy Joe Tolliver, Steve Beuerlein, Chris Chandler, Trent Dilfer, Ron Jaworski, Neil Lomax, Tommy Maddox, Jim McMahon, Chris Redman and Mark Rypien.

Baseball greats include Carlton Fisk, Mike Schmidt and Vince Coleman. The NHL has Brett Hull, Pierre Larouche and Jeremy Roenick.