Metamorphosis on the links
Too many NFL seasons have gone by to make him as recognizable as Hall of Famers John Elway or Dan Marino. But no matter how many American Century Championships pass, Mark Rypien will always be remembered as the tournament’s first champion.
Back in 1990, NBC took a risk on a celebrity tournament idea hatched by Celebrity Golf Association co-founder Jim Karvellas while he was reading a story about celebrity golf handicaps in Golf Magazine. Starting without a title sponsor and concerns that too few good golfers could be found, the first Celebrity Golf Championship attracted a slim field of 56 stars.
Sports and entertainment stars of the past and present paid their own airfare and gathered at Caesars Tahoe in Stateline with no promise of appearance fees.
“I remember thinking it was the coolest idea, especially for guys like myself who were four years retired and looking for something to compete in,” said former Cal and Atlanta Falcons quarterback Steve Bartkowski. “Golf became my new post pattern, something I could hone, work on and really try to get better at. I just hoped and prayed that the thing would evolve into something more than just once a year.”
Others, such as Michael Jordan, who was still a year away from winning his first NBA title, saw the championship as a way to simulate a dream of playing on the PGA Tour.
“I finally have an opportunity to play in a professional golf format,” Jordan told the Tahoe Daily Tribune before the first championship.
The uncertainty of the concept and unpredictability of how the players would play created an intriguing first tournament.
“I just remembered than none of us really cared,” said former NFL quarterback Neal Lomax, who is one of eight celebrities to compete in all 16 championships. “I think we played better, too. I think I played better the first couple of years and then started caring and my scores got worse.
“I remember they had the tees way up the first couple years and they have been lengthened as we’ve progressed here.”
Considering many of the stars were putting their games on public display within the confines of gallery ropes for the first time and organizers were trying to invite stars with a 10 handicap or better, the results were surprising.
Denver quarterback John Elway led after the first round, his 2-under 70 one of three rounds better than par for the first 18 holes. Rypien hardly played like a contender, shooting a 6-over 78.
But Elway blew up with an 82 in the second round, creating a logjam near the top of the leader board. Entering the final round, nine players were within five strokes. Bartkowski carried the burden of overnight tournament leader going into the final round, with baseball manager Davey Johnson and ex-Dolphins safety Dick Anderson two strokes off the pace.
However, there was more for Bartkowski to worry about as Rypien got into contention by carding a 71, along with Jack Wagner’s 70, the only players to score under par in round two.
Even Jordan, the only star in the field requiring a bodyguard, still had a chance, trailing by seven shots.
All it took to win the title on the final day was an even-par round. Rypien let the other stars shoot themselves out of the tournament, while his 12 pars, three birdies and three bogeys vaulted him to the top.
A triple bogey on the third hole cost Wagner the title. He also bogeyed 16 and 17 and finished third, two shots behind Rypien. Bartkowski couldn’t regain his magic from the first two rounds and skied to a 7-over 43 on his front nine.
“I remember choking like a dog down the stretch,” Bartkowski said during a practice round Tuesday, still pursuing his first championship win 15 years later.
Rypien made a crucial birdie on No. 18 when he hit an 8-iron from a tree-guarded lie in the rough to a spot below the hole. He struck his eagle attempt to within 2 feet and tapped in for the birdie to finish at 5-over 221.
Finally, Rypien had to withstand a final-hole charge by Anderson, who would go on to win the championship in 1994. Anderson, facing a similar, demanding approach shot to Rypien’s, gave himself a chance by reaching the green from about 180 yards out. But his subsequent eagle try rolled by the hole and Rypien was the tournament’s first champion.
“They can’t take that away,” said Rypien, the 1992 Super Bowl MVP. “It kick-started this whole deal and I put my name to that and hopefully the last year I play in it I can win it and maybe a few times in between.
“As long as I stay competitive and don’t become old and grumpy and my pro-am partners can’t stand me, I’ll come here every year if they invite me.”
The competition is only part of what attracts Rypien to the Tahoe event. He enjoys the casino nightlife and the opportunity to meet new people.
“The storytelling is just as good as the golf,” Rypien said. “This gives us an opportunity to see what other celebrities are doing and what drives them in their lives. You get to talk to a Ray Allen, a Donald Trump, guys you are probably not going to see, that’s what I enjoy as much as the competition out here.”
Fifteen years later, Rypien keeps trying to duplicate one of the biggest triumphs of his athletic career.
“Three out of the 14 times I’ve been here since, I’ve played fairly well,” Rypien said. “Whether you play good or not, coming here and still getting a chance to be in this area, you can’t beat it.”
Rypien has built up a local fan base with his loyalty to the tournament and his genuine appreciation of the fans.
“He was very humble. He was very patient with us and let us know what he was seeing,” said South Lake Tahoe’s Dave Hellod, who was part of Rypien’s team during the a celebrity-amateur tournament on Tuesday.
The faces of the tournament have changed as NBC provides an infusion of 20 high-profile celebrities each year. As the tournament has evolved, the stroke-play format has been replaced by Stableford scoring, the mandatory 10 handicap rule no longer exists and the tournament purse has increased from $400,000 to $500,000.
“Finally, they just said we are going to get a good core of guys who can compete on the golf course and then we’re gonna get a good draw. The mix of that is spectacular,” Rypien said.
Since that great celebrity experiment in 1990, Rick Rhoden and Dan Quinn have continually elevated the bar of play, but sensational shot making is no longer the purpose of the championship.
“We understand that with all of the celebrities we’re adding every year, we’re not a golfer’s tour, we are an entertainment group who gets to tee it up and do the things you dreamt growing up – to play behind the ropes,” Rypien said.
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