When NBC lost its contract with Major League Baseball and could no longer broadcast the games, they needed some events to take its place.
Jon Miller, who ran programming for the network, was approached by two men from Sports Marketing and Television International with the idea to bring together different celebrities and play a PGA style event.
“We didn’t have a sponsor, we didn’t have a venue, but we decided it was a good idea so we looked at about four or five different places and Rich Rose who was with Caesars Entertainment said ‘you got to come take a look at Lake Tahoe’ so we went out there in January of 1989 and fell in love,” Miller said.
The tournament was headquartered at Caesars for the first 10 years before it moved over to Harrah’s and Harvey’s, who have been the official host hotels since.
The first year, in 1990, a total of 45 players came to Edgewood-Tahoe Golf Course to play and about 7,500 spectators came to watch. Today, 86 celebrities participate and more than 45,000 fans come to watch and get autographs. The tournament is by invitation and, this year, Miller says he had to turn down over 125 celebrities who wanted to participate.
“These players love to interact with the fans. It’s a place the players know they can come and bring their families and have a good time, but in addition, fans can come here,” Miller said.
Former Notre Dame head coach and former ESPN college basketball analyst Digger Phelps is playing in his 23rd ACC and says not much has changed since his first tournament at Edgewood.
“The personalities are the same. The people that show up, the fans, the players, all of it,” Phelps said.
Phelps is a two-time cancer survivor and says the opportunity to reconnect with old friends and acquaintances along with meeting fans and being in Tahoe can’t be passed.
“You see a lot of people you know and you see them a year later and you know they’re alive and well,” Phelps said. ““It’s our masters of the celebrity tour. What Harvey’s and Harrah’s has done and the fans, the people, the kids. It’s the American dream without the craziness of what’s going on in the outside world.”
From Tuesday through Thursday, there are celebrity-amateur rounds with amateur golfers who pay to be paired up with a celebrity. Friday through Sunday is the American Century Championship tournament televised live on NBC and NBC Sports.
“For NBC, other than the Olympics, it’s one of our longest running sporting events on our air,” Miller said.
From 1990 through 2002, the tournament was played in a stroke play format and changed over to a modified Stableford format in 2003. In this format, a double eagle is 10 points, a hole-in-one is 8 points, an eagle is 6, a birdie is 3, a par is 1, a bogey is 0 and a double bogey is minus-2. The player with the most points at the end of the tournament wins. Mark Rypien won the first tournament in 1990 and has played in 22 total ACCs finishing second in 2013. Former MLB pitcher Rick Rhoden holds the record of most wins with eight.
The ACC has seen four hole-in-ones, Rudy Gatlin (1995) and Dan Jansen (1999) both at hole No. 5 and Marshall Faulk (2009) and Joe Sakic (2011) both on hole No. 17
When the tournament started in 1990, the players were competing for a prize purse of $400,000 for various charities and today that total has reached $600,000. To date, $4.2 million has been awarded to charities.
“We put a lot of money into local charities here, whether it’s helping to buy a new ambulance, helping to buy urgent care facilities, helping boys and girls clubs. You name it,” Miller said.
Losing the Major League Baseball contract turned out to be a blessing in disguise for NBC as it allowed them to build one of their most successful sporting programs.
“We’ve been here 25 years, we’ve got a great partner in American Century, we’re excited about the changes to the golf course. The superintendent has done a spectacular job. We’re excited about the changes that are coming and we’re hoping to be here for another 25 years,” Miller said.