Emotional Del Negro wins ACC after losing father before tournament

Laney Griffo
Basketball great Vinny Del Negro takes first in play-off. (Laney Griffo/ Tahoe Daily Tribune

STATELINE, Nev. — After trailing John Smoltz for most of the final round, Vinny Del Negro won the 32nd American Century Championship after forcing a playoff on the final hole.

The former NBA player and Chicago Bulls head coach tied the MLB Hall of Famer with a birdie on the 18th hole and then birdied it again in the playoff to become the oldest winner and first basketball player to take home the trophy in the event’s 32 years.

In their playoff head-to-head, Del Negro crushed a perfect tee shot down the middle of the fairway. Smoltz then hit a low line-drive that landed in the rough behind trees. He attempted to hit an iron over the trees from about 200 yards out but the ball was knocked down by a limb.

His third shot found the water left of the green. Del Negro hit the front edge of the green with his second shot and he two-putted for birdie and victory.

“I just hit my driver well on 18. I was able to make up a couple of birdies in the regulation and then in the playoff,” Del Negro said. “And just trying to keep my emotions in check, and hit each shot, focus in on each shot. But it was a grind all day. Didn’t make a lot of putts, left a few short. We were going back and forth, battling. But I was just fortunate to get it done in the playoff.”

“I had to try that shot in the playoffs,” Smoltz said. “I knew he was a 9-iron in. So live and learn. This one will sting for a little bit, but I’ll learn from it because there’s some things down the stretch I can do differently.”

This is Del Negro’s 20th appearance at the ACC and his first win. While Del Negro won $125,000 for first place he said he doesn’t care about the money, he just cares about making his family proud. However, the odds on him to win were 75-1, so anyone who took a chance got a big payoff.

Del Negro announced on an NBC interview shortly after winning that his father had died this past Wednesday and he kept it to himself the entire time. He was understandably emotional as he accepted his check and trophy.

Vinny Del Negro was tearful after winning. (Laney Griffo/ Tahoe Daily Tribune)

“Everyone is saying, ‘Why are you walking so fast in the fairway? And I like to walk fast anyway. But I wanted to walk fast because I was just talking to my dad,” Del Negro said. “I just wanted to make him proud.”

“I didn’t really want anybody to know,” he added. “I spent the last week with my dad before I got here. It was a special time. He’s been struggling. And then I found out Wednesday morning. I just wanted to represent him well, my family, and my wife. And just kept walking and talking and kind of focused in on each shot. Even if I hit a bad shot or bad putt, I never really let it bother me like before. I just stayed in the moment.”

“I can’t imagine going through the last three or four days knowing that and trying to play in a golf tournament. So he definitely earned it,” Smoltz said. “[It] couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy for Vinny to win. I love playing with Vinny. He played way better than I did today.”

Smoltz started the day with a two-point lead on Del Negro but had three bogeys throughout the day that hurt him. He said in an interview after that he could feel himself losing his swing throughout the day.

“I’m frustrated, but I’m the type of person that, through these kinds of experiences, I’ll be a better golfer for it than had I not been in this situation,” Smoltz said. “So it’s not the nerves. It’s just the trust of a swing that disappeared.”

While Smoltz held on to second, the competition for third was also fierce.

Women’s golf legend Annika Sorenstam and NFL quarterback turned analyst Tony Romo were neck and neck for most of the day and tied for the last three holes leading into the 18th.

Romo’s chip onto the green kept going and went off the back into the bunker. His recovery chip landed him right next to the pin. Sorenstam (64 points) missed a birdie attempt, handing third place to Romo (66 points).

Tony Romo finished third with 66 points and World Golf Hall of Famer Annika Sorenstam finished fourth with 64 points.

Charles Barkley was not able to land in the top 70. He ended up tying for 75th with Emmett Smith at -28.

Gallery caption: Photos by Laney Griffo/ Tahoe Daily Tribune

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