Dramatic win for ‘Super Mario’
They called Mario Lemieux “Super Mario” as one of the most prolific scorers in hockey history. As a golfer, they should call him “Mario the Magician” as he made a five-shot deficit disappear with six just holes left Sunday to win the Isuzu Celebrity Golf Championship at Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course.
The retired hockey player birdied four of the final five holes, including an 8-foot birdie on the final hole, to earn a one-shot victory over former champions Dick Anderson and Billy Joe Tolliver on a hot day in Stateline.
“It’s right up there (with the best) for my golf career,” said Lemieux, who earned $100,000. “Everybody who comes up here dreams of one day winning this event. This is our best event, our best field and our toughest tournament.
“I told myself that once I retired I would work on my golf game and try to win one of these tournaments. I was fortunate enough to win this year because I wasn’t playing very well earlier in the week.”
Lemieux, a 40-1 long shot to win at the Stateline casinos, opened with a 4-over-par 76 but closed with sizzling rounds of 67 and 69. He is the second hockey player – Dan Quinn in 1992 is the other – to win in the event’s nine-year history.
“If I could swing like Mario, I’d quit football,” said Tolliver, a 10-year NFL quarterback, who belted out a few songs preceding a post-tournament press conference despite a second-nine collapse. “He can also putt.”
Tolliver, the 1996 champion, seemingly had the tournament in the bag after opening a five-stroke edge over Lemieux, four-time champion Rick Rhoden and fan favorite John Elway after 10 holes.
But Tolliver lost his tournament grip on the 387-yard par-4 13th hole as he sliced his tee shot into a heavily wooded water hazard. The ball was never found, so Tolliver took a drop two club lengths from the hazard and was accessed a one-stroke penalty. He recovered for a bogey five, but Anderson pulled to within two strokes with a birdie in the group a hole ahead.
After parring the next par 4, Tolliver relinquished the lead on No. 15. Tolliver pulled his tee shot into an outcropping of pine trees and daringly tried to recover with a limb directly affecting his line to the pin.
“I was an idiot,” said Tolliver, who selected a 10-foot gap in which to negotiate his second shot, but it caught the limb and deflected farther into the woods. “I should have known when it’s sitting down in the rough it’s going to shoot up.”
Tolliver took his medicine on the third shot, pitching back into the fairway. However, he chunked his fourth shot, a flop wedge, into the left bunker. He chipped out and two-putted from 18 feet for a triple-bogey seven.
“Once Billy Joe made the seven on 15, everybody was back in it. It was just a matter of making a couple of birdie coming in,” Lemieux said.
Trailing Anderson by two shots and Tolliver by one, Lemieux went to work. He hit his approach shot from a fairway bunker to within three feet for birdie on No. 15. After grazing the cup on No. 15 with a 18-foot birdie putt, Lemieux jarred a 15-footer for birdie on No. 16 to go 2 under.
Tolliver also birdied the 16th to forge a three-way tie but missed a 3-footer for birdie on No. 17. Perhaps Tolliver missed the short birdie try after watching Lemieux run in his 10-foot birdie putt.
“It was a great challenge at the end to try to catch somebody or try to take the lead. I was trying to hit good shots and make a lot of putts. To be able to do that when you’re trying to do that is very satisfying,” he said.
Lemieux figured Anderson would birdie 18, which he did, so the two-time Stanley Cup winner assumed he needed to birdie the final hole to win.
The pressure temporarily overwhelmed Lemieux as he squirted a low drive 225 yards down the right side of the fairway.
“I was just trying to hit a good tee shot around the trees on the left and I hit a terrible shot,” Lemieux said.
With 275 yards left to the pin, Lemieux opted for the safe shot – a layup in front of Bill Laimbeer’s infamous pond. Then he calmly pitched to within eight feet. Prior to his tournament-winning putt, Lemieux watched Tolliver just miss his 12-foot eagle try that would have forced the third playoff in tournament history.
“I had a good line. I didn’t hit it the speed I wanted to. If I missed, I wanted to be a foot past, not a couple of inches,” Tolliver said.
Defending champion Rhoden and Elway tied for fourth, two strokes back. Rhoden closed with a 1-under 71, while Elway secured his best finish with a final-round 70. Quinn finished sixth, five strokes off the pace.
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