Crowd Pleasers: Fans, energy return to celebrity golf tournament

Laney Griffo
Jerry Rice spotted signing autographs.
Laney Griffo/ Tahoe Daily Tribune

STATELINE, Nev. — All around the country, life has been slowly returning to normal after the pandemic and one place where the return to normalcy can be seen very clearly is at the 32nd American Century Championship.

Thousands of fans from around the country flock each year to watch their favorite celebrities at Edgewood Tahoe Resort. According to Jon Miller, president, programming, NBC Sports in 1990, the first year of the event, 3,000 people attended. In 2019, 62,000 fans attended.

So, in 2020, NBC and American Century Investments didn’t take the decision to not allow fans lightly.

“We had more conversations last year about where we were and how American Century felt and how NBC felt and how to make this happen last year,” said Carol Chaplin, CEO of the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority. “And I just have to say that it really took a big village to pull that off. And kudos to both of our partners here for actually doing that and gritting their teeth and saying, you know, we really want this show to go on; if nothing else happens here, we want this to go on and to make sure that it was safe, because that was foremost in our minds, with our visitors, with our staffs, everybody.”

Suffice it to say, everyone involved with this tournament was excited to welcome fans back to the event this year.

“Last year, we lost a little energy,” said Jonathan Thomas, president and CEO of American Century Investments. “But everyone’s so excited to be back. And the energy that the fans are bringing this year is just powerful.”

The celebs are excited to have the fans back as well. Mardy Fish won the tournament for the first time last year but he doesn’t think the lack of fans helped. In fact, he thinks having them back will help.

“I try and tell those guys on (hole) 17 to leave the music on and to yell and scream. That stuff doesn’t really bother me all that much,” Fish said.

He also said that he always gets nervous on hole one but that, “I’m sure it would have been the same with fans as well.”

“I play golf, when I play, with music and stuff like that. There’s not too many things that sort of get me riled up,” Fish said.

Mark Mulder, who is a three-time ACC champ hoping to regain his title from Fish, is also excited to see the fans back.

“Last year was just, for me personally, there was no energy on the course,” Mulder said. “I couldn’t really focus. I couldn’t get into it mentally. It felt like a hit-and-giggle with my buddies on a Tuesday or something. I’m excited to see everyone back out there and feed off that energy, hopefully.”

With the return of fans, safety precautions have been put in place. Signs are placed around the course telling spectators that the celebrities will not be taking pictures, shaking hands or signing autographs.

However, many are bending those rules. Vince Carter was seen taking a picture with fans between holes, Jerry Rice was signing autographs and shaking hands and they weren’t the only two interacting with fans.

“I’m glad they’re open to do what they’re comfortable with,” said attendee Reema Karabsheh. “We come out here to interact with them so I’m glad they are willing to do that.”

Karabsheh, along with her husband and two kids came up from Sacramento to watch the tournament. When she was pregnant with her first child, she got a picture taken with Rice. She was excited to repeat that picture with her second child but couldn’t since fans weren’t allowed last year.

Fortunately, she and her whole family got a picture with Rice this year.

The French family from Granite Bay were also excited to interact with celebrities. Greg French snagged a picture with actor Brian Baumgartner before he went onto the green to putt.

“They’ve all been so friendly,” said Janna French.

The family hopes to be able to interact with Kelly Slater and Travis Kelce throughout the tournament.

Fans being welcomed back doesn’t just impact the tournament though, it also impacts the community.

For over a year LTVA ran campaigns asking people to not come to Tahoe, which is counter to their mission. Now, Chaplin is happy to be welcoming people back.

“Now we’re getting back to normal starting with our great tournament here,” Chaplin said.

The ACC also brings in thousands of dollars in donations each year to Tahoe-area nonprofits.

“It’s a big part of this tournament that you don’t necessarily see,” Chaplin said. “But we feel it all year long.”

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