The American Century Championship is one of those feel good sports stories.
The brainchild of Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network, the made-for-TV event is holding its celebrity golf tournament at Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course for the 28th straight year.
In this day and age, it’s a miracle that anything lasts 28 years on television, but the ACC has thrived. The tournament attracted more than 40,000 fans last year, including 18,000 on the final day. An estimated $10 million is spent on lodging, dining, gaming, recreation and media exposure, according to local authorities. Gary Quinn, the vice president of programming at NBC Sports, has been around for 23 years, and even he admitted he’s surprised at the longevity of the event. He said American Century coming on as the title sponsor was the biggest reason for the success of the event.
“They (American Century) really bought in, and are part of the family,” Quinn said. “They want us to get better and better. They are going to be around for a long time (signed through 2023).”
The tournament, which has crowned nine different champions in its previous 27 years, has had just two sponsors. NBC ran the event without a sponsor in 1990 and 1991, and Isuzu was the title sponsor from 1992 through 1997.
“It has changed immensely,” said Phil Weidinger, whose firm has handled PR for the tournament since 1993. “It started off as alternative baseball programming because of the baseball strike. Early on, people weren’t sure if it was going to catch on, but obviously with NBC’s involvement they were able to bring in a title sponsor. That was huge.
“Players love to come here. It’s like a reunion every year. Where else do you see all these guys from different backgrounds and different sports all get together?”
Jeremy Roenick, former hockey star, agreed.
“It is always exciting to be out here in Lake Tahoe,” he said. “This is, without question, my favorite week of the year by a long shot. Not only because how beautiful it is, but I get to see my buddies and put my competition hat on again.”
South Lake Tahoe is a destination spot, and Weidinger said that’s important.
“Part of it coming to Tahoe and getting a chance to win money and play this golf course,” Weidinger said. “It’s a pretty good deal. It’s why Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority has been involved as long as they have. The tournament and destination are perfect for each other. This is a fun place. Guys have a good time if you aren’t having a good time in Tahoe look in the mirror. It is not so much about golf, it’s the celebrities.”
And, NBC has done its part by bringing bigger and better names into the fold, both from the sports and entertainment world, improving the quality of the tournament from a competitive aspect.
Two of the biggest names in the field this year are actor/singer Justin Timberlake and Golden State star Steph Curry. Both are accomplished golfers, and both draw huge crowds.
“Definitely, Justin’s involvement has a lot of younger people coming out,” Weidinger said. “His reputation and popularity attracts all kinds of people. Steph is back, and what a joy to work with. Thirty years of doing this, and he’s the nicest guy I’ve ever worked with. He is an absolute gentleman.”
Weidinger said he congratulated Steph’s dad, Dell, on what a good job he and his wife did in raising Steph. The elder Curry said it was the nicest compliment he’d ever received.
“Having Golden State obviously win and Steph Curry being our new Michael Jordan does not hurt this event one bit,” said two-time champion Mark Rypien. “You see why the tickets have doubled. You’ll see a lot of No. 30 shirts out there. And, he’s also a guy, from what I’ve gathered, has really worked hard at his game.”
Keeping things fresh, according to Weidinger and Quinn, is critical to the success of the event.
“We always want to change up things; keep the dynamic moving,” Weidinger said. “Entertainers are most difficult (to attract) because of their schedules. Do you want to come to Tahoe and play golf for six days, or do you want to give a performance for $6 million or make a movie and make $20 million? That is the hard part.”
Weidinger said comedian Bill Murray has been approached about playing as have actors Matthew McConaughey and Clint Eastwood.
One of the celebrities who made the tournament go in the early years was Michael Jordan, who played 17 times. He hasn’t been in the event since 2012, however.
Quinn admitted he worried about Jordan not being in the field, but the ACC has thrived in the past several years.
“Michael had a lot to do with this tournament gaining traction,” Weidinger said. “He was in his prime when he was playing here. I remember one year we had the three MVPs playing (Mario Lemieux, Steve Young and Jordan). It was the MVP threesome of all time.
“People went crazy chasing him around. Having Michael here attracted a lot of attention.”
The tournament has had many defining moments, both on and off the golf course.
“I remember standing on the 17th tee last year with Steph Curry and Justin Timberlake and looking out at the sea of humanity,” Quinn said. “It was great (to see).”
Weidinger had a couple of special moments, the first in 1998, and the second came after the Angora fires.
“I bet 100 on Mario (Lemieux) at 40-1,” Weidinger said. “My wife (Diane) walked into the media room at the end of the day. If Mario makes his putt he wins. When the putt went in, she screamed. I told her there was no cheering in the press room. Four grand. That stands out as a pretty good damn week.
“What Charles (Barkley) has done over the years goes above and beyond. He went out to the area where homes were lost and talked to people who lost their homes. He took firefighters out to dinner and wrote a check for $100,000. He then wrote a check for $90,000 the next year. Talk about a guy who gets it. If he ran for mayor he’d win. People love the guy around here.”
Here’s a year-by-year rundown of the event:
1990: Mark Rypien, former Washington Redskins quarterback, shot a 5-over-par 221 and edged former Miami star Dick Anderson by a shot and actor Jack Wagner by two strokes .
1991: Rick Rhoden, the former pitcher and most prolific player in terms of wins (8), tied with Bill Laimbeer. Both shot 221, and Rhoden won in a playoff.
1992: Hockey player Dan Quinn shot a 3-under-par 213 to win the first of five celebrity titles. He edged Rhoden and Anderson by a single shot thanks to a 2-under 70 on the last day.
1993: Rhoden, thanks to a 6-under-par 66 on the first day, won the second of eight titles with a 9-under-par 207. Ex-Cincinnati catcher Johnny Bench was second at 211 and former NFL kicker Al Del Greco was third at 214.
1994: Anderson knocked off ex-Cal quarterback Steve Bartkowski and Rhoden on the first hole of sudden death to win his only celebrity crown.
1995: Thanks to a second-round 67, Rhoden was the winner for the third time in five years. He topped Chicago kicker Peter Tom Willis by five shots and Anderson by six.
1996: Ex-quarterback Billy Joe Tolliver won the first of his four titles, shooting a final-round 68 to finish at 5-under 211. Ex-Green Bay running back Donny Anderson was second at 215 followed by former 49ers great John Brodie at 216.
1997: Rhoden continued his odd years dominance, shooting a second-round 67 en route to a 9-under 207. Quinn and Brodie tied for second at 6-under 210.
1998: Hockey great Mario Lemieux rebounded from a first-round 76 to card rounds of 67 and 69 to finish at 4-under 212, a shot ahead of Tolliver and Dick Anderson.
1999: Another odd-year win for Rhoden, who shot a final-round 67 to finish at 4-under 212. Quinn and Tolliver were a distant second at 221.
2000: Del Greco shot a 7-under 65 on the final day to finish with a 210, 6-under-par. Anderson was three shots back at 213 and Brodie was at 216.
2001: Quinn shot three sub-par rounds for a 9-under-par 207, knocking off Rhoden by four shots and Jack Wagner by seven.
2002: Quinn repeated, shooting three 1-under-par rounds to edge Rhoden by two shots and Tolliver by three.
2003: In the first year of the Modified Stableford, Rhoden finished with 75 points to edge Wagner by four points. Quinn was third with 66 points.
2004: Quinn played three solid rounds, including a 29-point final round, to finish with 74 points, one ahead of Rhoden and seven ahead of Rypien.
2005: Tolliver recorded two 28-point days en route to 76 points and a four-point win over ex-Baltimore Ravens QB Trent Dilfer. Rhoden was third with 71 points.
2006: Wagner became the first non-athlete to win the event with 70 points, one ahead of Tolliver and three ahead of Quinn.
2007: Ex-NFL quarterback Chris Chandler finished with 31 points on the final day to win the tournament with 78 points, five ahead of Rhoden and eight better than NHL goalie Grant Fuhr.
2008: Rhoden posted two 23-point rounds to finish with 68 points, one better than Quinn and four ahead of Fuhr and Dallas quarterback Tony Romo.
2009: Rhoden was in the winner’s circle again in 2009, finishing with 74 points. Romo was three points back at 71, and Tolliver and Quinn tied for third at 70.
2010: Tolliver ran away from the field, recording 33 points in the second round en route to 84 points. John Smoltz, Wagner, Romo and John Elway were a distant second with 65. It was the most lopsided win in tournament history.
2011: Wagner picked up his second victory, recording 28 third-day points to finish with 80. Romo was three points back at 77 and hockey star Roenick was tied for third with Chandler at 66.
2012: Quinn scored 26 on the final day top finish with 66 points, six ahead of Rypien and seven ahead of Elway.
2013: Tolliver recorded back-to-back rounds with 25 points to finish with 67 and beat Rypien in a playoff. Mark Mulder was a point back at 66.
2014: Rypien shot a final-round 33 to finish with 76, 11 ahead of Roenick and Annika Sorenstam. Lightning delayed play for two hours, and when play resumed Rypien eagled the par-5 16th, birdied the par-3 17th and birdied the par-5 18th.
2015: Mulder scored 82 points, second-best in tournament history. He had back-to-back rounds of 26 before finishing with 30 points on the final day to beat Eric Gagne by one point and NFL kicker Josh Scobee by three.
2016: Mulder scored 29 on the final day to finish with 74 points for his second celebrity win. He beat Mardy Fish by five points and Wagner by seven.