Defending celebrity champ aims for fifth berth in U.S. Senior Open |

Defending celebrity champ aims for fifth berth in U.S. Senior Open

Steve Yingling, Tribune sports editor

As dominant as Rick Rhoden has been in celebrity golf over the past two decades, there is another area of golf where he has been even better – qualifying for the U.S. Senior Open.

On Monday at the Dye Preserve Golf Course in Jupiter, Fla., the 56-year-old Rhoden will try to qualify for the U.S. Senior Open for the fifth time in five tries. Even in the American Century Championship – celebrity golf’s most prestigious event – Rhoden only wins 39 percent of the time.

“I have a good chance of qualifying for a spot, but it depends on the course, and I have to shoot under par to get in,” Rhoden said. “If I play like I’m playing now, I have a good shot.”

Rhoden spent 16 seasons pitching for four Major League Baseball teams. Two of his big-league stops were two of the most highly scrutinized in baseball: the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers. He’s also won more celebrity golf events than any other star, including a record seven American Century Championships. Hence, Rhoden isn’t about to be unnerved by the Open’s thicker rough, tighter fairways and faster greens.

“I drive the ball good. I’m probably above average in length. It’s about putting the ball into play,” Rhoden said. “Golf is a lot like pitching. One day it’s working, and some days nothing is working.”

Qualifying for a U.S Senior open is much easier than earning a spot in a Champions Tour event, according to Rhoden.

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“Talent is spread out through 30 to 40 sites around the country, and you feel like there are 10 players you have to beat to get in,” he said. “At each tour event, there are 65-70 guys who are all good, competing for a couple of spots.”

Rhoden was fortunate to play in his last Open – the 2007 event at Whistling Straits in Haven, Wis. He made the field as a first alternate.

The three-time Silver Slugger Award winner seldom plays in Champions Tour events these days. In the past three years, Rhoden has participated in only four events.

The bottom fell out of his bid to become a Champions Tour regular in 2007 when as a co-medalist of the tour qualifying school, he was required to go through Monday morning qualifying for each tour event. Consequently, Rhoden decided to focus on the one celebrity golf event that has survived the country’s recession and limit the stress on a neck that hasn’t been the same since a 2002 accident involving a cement truck.

Rhoden has made the cut in two of his four U.S. Open appearances, with his best showing being a tie for 41st in 2006 – his all-time best season on the tour for players 50 and older. During that season, Rhoden appeared in 15 events and collected $142,714.

Rhoden also made the Open cut in 2005, opening with rounds of 71 and 74 before closing with a 69. If not for a 78 in the third round, he would have finished much higher than 50th place.

His best Open moment and one of his most cherished athletic accomplishments occurred in 2005 at the NCR Country Club in Kettering, Ohio, when he became the 11th player to make a hole in one. The first was Mac Main in 1985 on the seventh hole at Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course, the site of the annual ACC that Rhoden often dominates. Rhoden aced the 170-yard second hole with a 6-iron. A hole earlier, Rhoden ended a long stretch without a birdie.

“I was paired with Pat Laverty of Los Angeles and neither one of us had a birdie for 20 holes, so I birdied the first and I had an ace on the second. It was the best start I ever had in any round,” Rhoden said.

Other than his own memory of the ace, Rhoden says there is little proof of his achievement. He regrets that there isn’t more to commemorate the shot.

“I never got a plaque or a certificate. I know it’s the U.S. Open, but I never got anything,” Rhoden said. “They only have something like (14) players to make a hole in one.”

At least Rhoden didn’t have to pay for the rare golf feat by buying a round of drinks like many players often do.

“I was in the first group, and I got out of there,” he joked.

Last July, Rhoden sank a six-foot birdie putt on the final hole to edge Dan Quinn and Tony Romo for his first ACC title since 2003. The two-time All-Star will have a chance to add to his record seven titles in the 20th celebrity championship July 14-19 at Edgewood Tahoe.

“Who knows how many I can win. It was looking like I wasn’t going to win another one,” Rhoden said. “I’m capable of winning every time I play, but the other players are getting better. I’ll play there as long as they invite me.”

U.S. Senior Open holes in one

Year Player Course Hole

2007 Bob Ford Whistling Straits 3

2006 Walter Hall Prairie Dunes 10

2005 Curtis Strange NCR 13

2005 Walter Hall NCR 13

2005 Rick Rhoden NCR 2

2004 John Aubrey Bellerive 3

2004 Pat Tallent Bellerive 3

2004 Mike McCullough Bellerive 13

2003 Randy Reznicek Iverness 12

1999 Hank Cooper Des Moines 3

1998 Charles Smith Riviera 14

1997 Dick Goetz Olympia Fields 11

1995 Jack Nicklaus Congressional 7

1994 Bobby Nichols Pinehurst 17

1985 Mac Main Edgewood Tahoe 7