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Billy Joe laughs all the way to the bank

Steve Yingling
Jim Grant / Tahoe Daily Tribune / Billy Joe Tolliver kisses the championship trophy at the awards ceremony Sunday afternoon.
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STATELINE – If Billy Joe Tolliver would have found a way to squander the American Century Championship title on the final hole Sunday, at least he still would have had his sense of humor.

The retired NFL quarterback hit two shots onto the sandy Lake Tahoe beach lining the 18th hole but escaped with a bogey to win his second championship by four points over Cleveland Browns quarterback Trent Dilfer. His 54-hole score of 76 points was a record, breaking Rick Rhoden’s total of 75 set in 2002.

Afterward, Tolliver had little to say about what it meant to win celebrity golf’s major title, only what it would afford him at home.

“I’m still a bum. I’m a volunteer coach,” Tolliver said. “(My wife will) say, ‘You should win, you play golf all of the time.’

“But this bought me a month. She won’t rage on me for a month, so this is good for me.”

If Tolliver was wound up on the ticklish finishing hole, no one saw it. But afterward in the press room, he put on a comedy routine that would have made Dennis Miller proud.

“I got my yard work done by 10 one morning and I said, ‘All right, honey, I’m going to the golf course.’ She said, ‘It must be nice being you. What do you want to be when you grow up?’ And without hesitation, I said, ‘Single.’ My kid is rolling on the ground so hard and then she punched me in the face.

“It wasn’t six hours later and I’m at home and she’s staring at me. She’s got that look and I said, ‘What are you looking at?’ She says, ‘You’re getting fat.’ Getting, I’ve been fat, but you still love me, don’t you? I’d love you if you were fat. I’d miss you, but I’d love you.”

Tolliver had reason to be in a jolly mood since he withstood a brilliant shot-making day by six-time champion Rhoden. Rhoden, however, missed a gaggle of birdie putts inside 10 feet and finished third, five points behind Tolliver.

“Make no mistake about it, I know how fortunate I was today that Rick’s putter wasn’t working. Rick kept the heat on all day because he was just flagging it,” Tolliver said.

“All I know is Rick has made me a better golfer. (Without him) we would have kept going, all shooting 72s around here and nobody would have seen red numbers.”

Tolliver, though, couldn’t resist poking fun at Rhoden’s putting woes.

“I didn’t have the heart to tell him that his head’s moving an inch forward when he’s going, so call me a bastard if you will, but what I’ve just done is won the Senior (Open) for him,” Tolliver said.

Rhoden qualified last week for the U.S. Senior Open July 26-31 in Kettering, Ohio.

Dilfer was in position to apply some final-hole pressure to Tolliver, but his second shot to the par-5 18th hole found Lake Laimbeer. Playing in the group behind Dilfer, Tolliver learned of Dilfer’s fate and then only needed to worry about losing if Rhoden or Chris Chandler made a double eagle. A playoff became a possibility when Tolliver took five shots to get his ball on the green. Two blocked shots into the sand, a penalty stroke and two chips left him with a three-foot putt for the win.

Before his winning stroke, Chandler and Rhoden both missed eagle attempts, eliminating them from title contention. Tolliver raised both arms in victory and then rolled in his anticlimactic bogey putt.

Rhoden finished third with 71 points and Chandler was fourth with 69.

Harveys Casino Resort listed Tolliver at 8-1 to win the tournament. Tolliver hinted that he made more than the $100,000 first prize.

“Let me just say this, there was one guy who went up to the window and the odds went down. He was really good looking and his wife was gorgeous,” Tolliver said.

Tolliver is already looking forward to defending his title next year, even if NBC makes him play a different game.

“You don’t want to miss this,” Tolliver said. “The bottom line is if they say, ‘Joe, you can come next year, but you’ve got to ride a donkey and you’ve got to hit all of your shots.’ I’m coming up here with Gus the kicking mule and I’ve got 3-foot extensions on my clubs, jacking it around out there.”

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