Smoltz leads tight field heading into final round at ACC (Gallery)

STATELINE, Nev. — MLB Hall of Famer John Smoltz doesn’t mince words. He wants to win the American Century Championship celebrity golf tournament as bad as anybody.

Gallery caption: Photos by Bill Rozak

And with an eagle on the final hole Saturday, the 54-year old is in sole possession of the lead heading into the final round on Sunday and could become the oldest winner in the event’s 32-year history.

Smoltz will be in the final group with former NBA standout Vinny Del Negro, who he leap-frogged with a 6-point eagle on No. 18 at Edgewood Tahoe Resort to take a 2-point lead into the final day.

“I make no bones about it — I want to win this tournament probably more than anybody,” Smoltz said. “That’s probably why I haven’t won it. But I had to learn to just accept whatever happens.”

Smoltz, the co-first round leader with former NHL star Mike Modano, had three birdies, three bogeys and an eagle on his scorecard for a 2-under par 70, and 26 points in the modified stableford scoring system. He had 25 points on Friday for a total of 51.

De Negro has 49 and he jumped into the lead early in the second round after reeling off birdies and five pars in the first 10 holes. He cooled off on the back nine but buried a birdie on No. 18 and looked like he would be the clubhouse leader until Smoltz sank his 10-foot eagle putt.

Del Negro finished tied for seventh last year in his best finish in his 20 appearances and was eighth the year before.

Two-time winner Jack Wagner is third with 47 points, LPGA legend Annika Sorenstam is fourth with 46 points and two-time champ Tony Romo is fifth with 42 points.

Stephen Curry and last year’s champ Mardy Fish are tied for sixth with 39 points, Joe Pavelski and Tim Wakefield have 38 and Kyle Williams sits in 10th with 34 points.

Smoltz said he will be keeping a close eye on the scoreboard during the final round.

“I’m not going to lie, I’m going to look at the leaderboard as many times as I can,” Smoltz said. “I’m one of those guys. I will look at it because I want the information. I think it helps. I know a lot of people don’t do it. They just play their game and try to make as many putts. To me, the biggest key I found, if you get a couple birdies early, it helps relax you. And really that’s the key, because you know the point value and you know how to do the math.”

Wagner, 61, played with Smoltz on Saturday and came away impressed.

“John hit the ball beautifully today,” Wagner said. “And that’s what it takes out here. He had maybe one bad iron or two bad irons. But I’m so excited to be in the hunt and be in the final group or second to last group, whatever, it’s been a while.”

Wagner also wants to make a run at his third title.

“Not to sound corny, but I really work on my breathing to stay in the present moment,” Wagner said. “And if I can just make a few good swings and give myself some chances. John’s not won. Annika’s not won here. Vinny’s not won here. So if I’m not going to win, I hope they have a great round because it’s such a special event to win. I would really love to win it again, but I’ve got to shoot in the 60s for sure tomorrow, probably, to have a chance of being behind four or five points.”

Sorenstam is also excited to have a chance and was tied for the lead until Del Negro and Wagner birdied and Smoltz eagled.

“I feel really good about my game from tee to green,” Sorenstam said. “I’ve just gotta have some birdie opportunities. And I really would love to play the par-5s a little better. I played aggressively on two of them, the last and then 16. I just need to convert birdies. It would be nice to roll in an eagle as well, but I’m just not birdieing the par-5s which I usually do. A little bit of improvement. And Sunday, I love Sundays.”

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