First celebrity champ works to get back on top |

First celebrity champ works to get back on top

Steve Yingling, Tribune sports editor

Golf fans may have forgotten by now, but winning the first celebrity golf championship remains very clear in the mind of Mark Rypien 12 years later.

The free agent NFL quarterback won the springboard event for celebrity golf in 1990, finishing one stroke ahead of 1994 champion Dick Anderson and two in front of Jack Wagner.

“There weren’t the players that there are now,” said Rypien, the 1992 Super Bowl MVP. “Obviously guys have taken their games more seriously in their retirement state, especially Rick (Rhoden).

“That was a special sports moment. You go through life having a lot in different sports, whether it be high school or state championships in basketball or football or Super Bowls or winning the inaugural event here.”

Rypien started the 1990 tournament with his worst round — a 6-over-par 78 — and trailed leader John Elway by eight shots. However, Rypien played the final 36 holes in 1-under par in shooting 71 and 72 to win it.

Two shots stand out in his mind — one was his and the other belonged to Anderson — on the final hole.

“It was an 8-iron from about 180 yards and I had to hit it over a tree,” Rypien said. “I couldn’t hit seven, because I didn’t think I could get it up. I knocked it on and made birdie there, which forced Dick to make eagle on the last hole.”

Actually, Anderson, playing in the group behind Rypien’s, nearly won it with a double eagle.

“(My birdie) forced Dick to make eagle on the last hole, and he almost knocked it in for a double eagle,” Rypien said. “I sat there and watched him over his 20-foot eagle putt to tie me, and it just slid by.”

Since that exhilarating triumph, Rypien hasn’t won another celebrity event. Last year, a closing 80 dropped him into a tie for 17th.

“One day it’s putting, one day it’s chipping, one day it’s driving, one day it’s irons … it’s been a combination of not putting it all together,” Rypien said. “My stroke average this year hasn’t been that bad. I’ve been keeping it around 72, 73 and 74, but that ain’t gonna do with the guys we have playing. They’re shooting 69 and 70s. Shoot, Rick, two weeks ago in Denver, shoots 64 and 67.”

Retired hockey player Pierre Larouche, who has won one of the Celebrity Players Tour’s six events in 2002, believes Rypien can win again.

“He works hard at it, he hits the ball very long. He has a great game,” Larouche said. “You’ve got four or five guys that you play with on the tour that you don’t want to get beat by, but if you get beat you don’t mind, and he’s one of them.”

A check of the sports books in Stateline reveals that Rypien isn’t being given much of a chance of becoming a two-time winner. Caesars Tahoe lists him at 20-1 and Harveys Lake Tahoe has him at 15-1.

“I don’t have a lot of excuses,” Rypien said. “I will say that I have played more coming into this event than I ever have coming into any of them. What does that mean? I don’t know. I might shoot a 100, you can never tell.

“I come here with high expectations and I usually leave with my head hanging low, but it’s nice just to come out here and compete and see what you can do.”

The father of two returned to the NFL last season after a three-year layoff, serving as a backup to Peyton Manning in Indianapolis. His status for the 2002 season is contingent on a team needing a quarterback once preseason games begin.

“I don’t want to go through another training camp,” Rypien said. “You’ve got family and you can never see your family. There’s a lot of downfalls to it, but it’s for the young guys and it’s for guys who need to learn the system and need the two practices to understand what they’re doing.”

But Rypien spoke like a quarterback who isn’t done.

“I’m going to wait and see what happens, see how comfortable people are and try to get myself a little more fit and then give it a shot again,” he said.

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