AMERICAN CENTURY CHAMPIONSHIP | In search of greatness | TahoeDailyTribune.com

AMERICAN CENTURY CHAMPIONSHIP | In search of greatness

Steve Yingling, Tribune sports editor

Published Caption: Jim Grant / Special to the Tribune

If the American Century Championship has failed in any aspect, it has to be the star power of its champions.

Michael Jordan has yet to win the tournament despite numerous attempts. John Elway is one of six celebrities to play in all 20 events but the NFL Hall of Fame quarterback has yet to rise above his fourth-place finish in 1998.

The tournaments most beloved star, jerky-swinging Charles Barkley, can’t get off the bottom of the leader board.

Dallas Cowboys’ QB Tony Romo, the tournament’s top current professional, saves his very best golf for U.S. Open qualifiers.

Only hockey legend Mario Lemieux’s, one of the NHL’s all-time prolific scorers, has managed to capture celebrity golf’s biggest prize. And that was 12 years ago. The tournament’s other eight winners excelled in their professional sports and entertainment careers but aren’t Hall of Famers and the bar room answers to trivia questions: Rick Rhoden, Dan Quinn, Al Del Greco, Mark Rypien, Chris Chandler, Billy Joe Tolliver, Jack Wagner and Dick Anderson.

If not Romo, Jerry Rice might be the next superstar to hoist the ACC trophy.

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If the retired 49ers’ record-setting wide receiver doesn’t succeed, it won’t be from a lack of effort or passion for the game. Rice doesn’t mind spending hour after hour hitting balls on the driving range or working on his short game on the putting green, as he systematically tries to perfect a game that is unperfectable.

“In a team sport, there is a tendency to put the blame on someone else, but in golf everything is on you,” said Rice, who will be inducted into the Pro Football of Fame later this summer.

The 47-year-old Rice credits his father Joe Nathan for his unending work ethic.

“My father was a bricklayer, and he’d take me to work with him during the summer. He taught me the meaning of hard work and dedication,” Rice said. “There is nothing where I look back on my career and wondered what if I had done this. I left it all on the football field, giving 100 percent.”

Rice served notice at last year’s tournament that his game is on the upswing as he placed a career-best 10th, beating three former champions in the process.

“I’m working hard on my game, and I’m hoping to crack the top 5 or have a chance of winning this year,” Rice said. “I’m going in with a positive attitude. You can’t go in with any kind of negativity.”

Rice’s commitment to improving at golf has been evident since his tournament debut in 1996. After finishing in 68th place in his rookie year, Rice has steadily climbed the leader board, finishing 21st or better in his last three appearances.

“What I’ve learned is patience, being precise on everything and knowing when to be aggressive and when to back off,” Rice said.

The former “Dancing with the Stars” runner-up hasn’t been afraid to test his game against some of golf’s best, playing in two Nationwide Tour events this year.

Even though he shot 83 and 76 to miss the cut in the Fresh Express Classic in April, Rice wasn’t demoralized. He played in a second Nationwide tournament in May, firing a 92 and 82 before being disqualified after his caddy used a yardage scope during the first round.

“Playing against the Nationwide Tour pros helped me. It’s going to benefit me now that I’m back in my surroundings. I was a little out of my boundaries against those guys,” Rice said. “I learned how guys break everything down and their patience that I will apply to the tournament next week.”

Rice’s devotion to golf has been impeded by his success in other arenas. Besides finishing runner-up to Drew Lachey in the 2006 “Dancing with the Stars” contest, the reinvented Rice has ventured into acting, playing a bit role in the comedy “Without a Paddle: Nature’s Calling” and playing himself in the sports game show “Pros vs. Joes.”

“I’m having a great time doing so many things. I had to find something to fill that void of football, and I think I’ve done that,” Rice said. “People are so aware of me now that they don’t know anything about what I did in football.

“When I played football my main focus was on football. I had the opportunity to do other stuff off the field, but I wanted to be the best player I could be.”