Lake Tahoe tourism is big Celebrity Golf winner |

Lake Tahoe tourism is big Celebrity Golf winner

STATELINE – The champion will walk away with a $100,000 check, but the big winner at the American Century Celebrity Golf Championship will be Lake Tahoe’s tourism industry.

NBC Sports’ national telecast of the final two rounds July 7-8 at picturesque Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course is the sort of exposure most destination resorts dream about.

The tournament also fills local casinos with high-paid superstars, actors and other deep-pocket celebrities.

“I understand the high-stakes gaming tables have become popular with some of our players and, for that, we thank you in advance,” said Deb Howard, chairwoman of the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority.

The field is filled with Hall of Famers and most valuable players including John Elway, George Brett, Johnny Bench, Mario Lemieux, Charles Barkley, Marcus Allen, Dan Marino and Corey Nakatani.

The favorite on the board at Caesars Tahoe with odds of 7-5 is five-time Tahoe champion Rick Rhoden – the former major-league pitcher who cannot explain why he has won the event every odd year since it began. That’s 1991, 1993, 1995, 1997 and 1999.

Next comes former Pittsburgh Penguin Dan Quinn at 4-1 and the defending champion, NFL kicker Al Del Greco, at 6-1.

The opening longshots include actor Kevin Nealon at 750-1, followed by former Vice President Dan Quayle, Jason Sehorn, Digger Phelps and Kerry Collins, all at 500-1.

“Every year we say we have the best field ever. And we think this one is,” said Kevin Monaghan, NBC Sports vice president for business development.

The star-watching continues once the players retire to the hotel-casinos on the Nevada side of the border. Some have been known to wind down at the karaoke bar.

“If you can imagine being a guest and seeing John Elway, Charles Barkley and Oscar de la Hoya singing together at Cleo’s lounge – it’s just a magnificent week for guests,” said Paul Reder, vice president of Park Place Entertainment, which owns Caesars Tahoe, a founding tourney sponsor.

The mountain vistas and shimmering azure lake that straddles the California-Nevada border at an elevation of 6,228 feet are the big attractions for the players who bring along the wife and kids for a weekend in the high Sierra.

Several of the competitors play a full season of golf tournaments on the Celebrity Players Tour, a schedule of more than a dozen events across the country. The Tahoe tourney has the biggest total purse at $500,000.

“I can’t wait to get there,” NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer said. “It’s our crown jewel. It’s our U.S. Open.”

About 25,000 spectators attend the tournament, which includes a celebrity-amateur round Thursday before formal play begins Friday.

But sponsors have a hard time gauging the economic impact. The midsummer week is second only to Christmas-New Year’s as the busiest time of the year so most hotel-casinos would probably be full anyway.

It’s also difficult to determine how many people travel to Stateline solely to attend the tournament and how many attend since they are visiting already.

More valuable is the television exposure, two hours on NBC Saturday and three hours on Sunday – with Sunday’s telecast preceded by the men’s singles tennis finals at Wimbledon. ESPN plans tape-delayed telecasts in the evening and CNBC carries the event in Europe and Asia.

“Millions of people have now been watching us on NBC every year since we started 12 years ago,” said Phil Weidinger, who runs Weidinger Public Relations in Stateline and promotes the event.

“It’s saying all the right things about Lake Tahoe. They show those shots of the lake and the mountains and the casinos, and that’s exactly what we are trying to sell – the truth-in-beauty shots,” he said.

“You can’t pay for that. Well, you can. But you can’t afford it.”

NBC is one of the owners of the tournament and has a vested interest in its success.

“It’s much more successful than our most recent owned-event, the XFL,” Monaghan cracked at the kickoff news conference last month.

The same NBC production crew handles the U.S. Open, the Players Championship, the Ryder Cup and the President’s Cup.

“But this is the event they all want to come to,” Monaghan said. “We come out here and say that we are having so much fun we should be arrested.”

American Century, based in Kansas City, Mo., is in its third year as sponsor.

“What has become the premier celebrity golf tournament is helping us elevate our stature,” said Michael Barr, vice president of the investment management company.

“We’re a 40-year-old company but in many ways we are a very well-kept secret. This tournament has allowed us to raise our profile,” he said.

The competition itself is better than some expect. Del Greco won last year’s event by firing a 7-under-par 65 the final round on the 6,707-yard layout, one shot off the course record 64 held by Lee Trevino.

“Last year as a rookie, I didn’t know what to expect. It was a rude awakening. It was embarrassing,” said Brett, the former Kansas City Royals great who plays to a 6 or 7 handicap but tied for 52nd last year with rounds of 82-86-92.

Over the past 12 years, Rhoden has won a record $532,282 at the Tahoe tourney. Other past winners include Lemieux, Quinn, former Miami Dolphins safety Dick Anderson and former NFL quarterbacks Billy Joe Tolliver and Mark Rypien.

“I don’t think people have any idea how competitive we are on this tour,” said Dilfer, who shot a final-round 62 to claim the $25,000 winner’s check in May at the Stan Humphries Celebrity Classic in San Diego.

“Some guys are not active and they treat this as a profession. Most of us are professional athletes and we know how to crank it up another level and get the job done,” he said.

Del Greco said he bet on himself each of the years he has played in the tournament, except last year, when he won at odds of 12-1.

“It’s a great event, the best we play in,” he said. But there is at least one thing he would change – the huge pine tree that knocks down drives in the middle of the par 5, 547-yard 16th hole.

“If that’s ever down at the end of the tournament one year,” Del Greco said, “you’ll know to come looking for me.”

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