Rypien recalls first celebrity championship
For as long as the American Century Championship exists, there is no forgetting what impact Mark Rypien has made on Lake Tahoe’s premier sporting event.
The former NFL quarterback won the first celebrity golf championship – before the 54-hole tournament secured a major sponsor and when NBC was seeking to fill a void after losing rights to televise Major League Baseball games.
Nineteen years later, the Super Bowl XXVI most valuable player has remained one of the top contenders in the 80-player celebrity tournament, even though he has been unable to duplicate that special weekend in 1990.
“How fast it goes. It seems like it was yesterday,” said Rypien on Tuesday after playing part of a round with the media at Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course. “The one thing that makes it (what it is) is your anticipation of coming here each year. Once the tournament ends, it’s one of the saddest times of your year.”
Looking back on that first tournament, Rypien opened play with a six-over-par round of 78 and hardly looked like a title contender with 14 players, including Michael Jordan, Joe Namath and Rollie Fingers, in front of him. What Rypien did over the final two rounds gave the event instant golf credibility, although no sporting competition in the world could rival the list of stars that the Lake Tahoe tournament attracted.
Over his final 36 holes, Rypien was 1-under par, firing rounds of 71 and 72 to finish one stroke ahead of Dick Anderson and two shots in front of Steve Bartkowski.
“Now, that would get you about 20th place,” Rypien said. “My 5-over par wouldn’t do anything now. It was a great start, and Rick (Rhoden) came back the next year and shot the same score and won it. Then scores started to get a little bit lower as people kind of got more accustomed to the golf course and where to miss and where to hit shots.”
Rypien couldn’t celebrate his championship until anxiously watching Anderson attack the closing hole at Edgewood Tahoe. Anderson nearly scored a double-eagle on the 18th, then missed a short eagle putt that would have tied Rypien and forced a playoff.
While Rypien would go on to more fame by winning a Super Bowl title with the Redskins, that first celebrity championship opened the door to a world that he didn’t think was possible.
“It was just getting the opportunity to meet a bunch of athletes and entertainers in a world that you have always admired and seen on television,” he said. “To get them all to come here and go out and have dinner with them and play bocce balls with them, to do things the whole week with them and get to know them a little better was probably the biggest reward of all.”
The stars that Rypien immediately gravitated toward were rising country music singer Vince Gill, entertainers Tom Dreesen and Frankie Avalon and Olympic hockey hero Mike Eurzione. The tournament also allowed him to become more than acquaintances with the NFL players he admired.
“The football guys I had played against – L.T., Bartkowski, (John) Elway and Danny Marino – you just admire them from a distance across the field, but you never really got a chance to meet them,” Rypien said. “From there, you network with them and go and support their causes and foundations and you become good friends when you have an environment like this to meet them at.”
Rypien hasn’t pressed to win another celebrity championship. After winning in 1990, Rypien didn’t land in the top 10 again until 1999 when he finished sixth.
“Playing good golf and having fun while you’re doing it is what I take away from this,” Rypien said. “We always want to win at everything we do, so don’t let that override the experience here and being able to enjoy this with your family.”
Over the past five years, his game has come alive and he’s finished fifth or better on three occasions.
“The last four years, I don’t want to say I’m the Kenny Perry, but I feel like the Kenny Perry. I found a little bit of fountain of youth, playing as good as I have,” Rypien said.
Living in Spokane, Wash., the colder climate doesn’t permit Rypien to enjoy golf year-round. He estimates many of the top stars play about 70 more rounds of golf than he does prior to the event.
“They are in Florida, Phoenix or wherever,” Rypien said. “I have a little bit of a disadvantage, but I know the golf course. The great thing is I love the course, and I know how it sets up.”
And they’ll be forever linked.
Note: The American Century Championship is scheduled for July 14-19. Ticket prices are $15 for the three practice rounds and $25 for each day of the 54-hole tournament. Children 10 and under are admitted for free with a paying adult. Go to southtahoe.activitytickets.com to purchase tickets.
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