Steph Curry kisses the American Century Championship Cup after his 2023 win, photo courtesy ACC

Elite Competition

The best players in American Century Championship history discuss competing in the best celebrity golf tournament in the land


Among the welter of celebrity golf tournaments, one stands above the rest: the American Century Championship, played annually at Edgewood Tahoe Resort in Stateline for the past 34 years.

“It’s the major for celebrity golfers,” says John Smoltz, the hall of fame pitcher from the Atlanta Braves.

Smoltz asserts the preeminence of the American Century Championship (ACC) with a tinge of humility. The former fireballer is widely hailed as one of the best celebrity golfers (Tiger Woods said he and Tony Romo are the best nonprofessional golfers he has played with); nevertheless, he has yet to take home the coveted American Century Championship Cup.

Hall of fame pitcher John Smoltz is among the top golfers who compete annually in the American Century Championship, photo courtesy ACC

“I’ve got to figure out how to putt,” Smoltz says ruefully. “I just haven’t got those greens yet.”

But Smoltz, who is finally feeling healthy after having both hips replaced, says he’s busy refining his game in preparation for the upcoming Tahoe showcase, scheduled for July 10-14.

“My goal is to be the oldest winner ever at Lake Tahoe,” he says.

The pitcher provides a window into the prestige of the American Century Championship, recounting how the only drawback to his induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2015 was that he couldn’t attend the Tahoe event that year.

“It was a tough call,” he says.

Every year, Smoltz looks at the Major League Baseball schedule in hopes that the all-star game, for which he provides color commentary as a Fox Sports broadcaster, doesn’t coincide with the tournament.

Smoltz is not alone among the celebrity athletes who not only arrange their calendar around the celebrity golf event, but also put in the necessary preparation to be competitive.

“It’s just a special time,” says former professional basketball player and head coach Vinny Del Negro. “Everyone puts that on their calendar.”

Del Negro won the American Century Championship Cup in 2021, edging Smoltz in a tightly contested playoff. He says he’s proud of the win, particularly as the competitive aspect of the tournament has grown from only a handful of capable participants to a bevy of duffers who could hoist the trophy.

“I think the field is deeper in terms of guys who can win it,” Del Negro says.

In this regard, the tournament has progressed steadily since it debuted in 1990 as the Isuzu Celebrity Golf Championship.


Evolution of a Classic

Mark Rypien, former NFL quarterback and Super Bowl MVP, has as much insight into the competitive evolution of the tournament as anyone, as he won the inaugural event and then again 24 years later in 2014.

Rypien says the biggest change in the tournament between his two victories was the attendance.

Two-time major league all-star Mark Mulder won the ACC three years in a row from 2015-2017, photo courtesy ACC

“In 1990, there were about 200 or 300 people, and maybe 1,000 people on the last day,” Rypien says.

Last year, a record 76,810 fans attended the 34th annual American Century Championship, not including all the beachgoers and flotilla of boats filled with revelers anchored off the South Shore, who gather en masse each year to watch the celebrities finish play on the iconic 17th hole.

The size of the crowd affects the play, says former major league pitcher Mark Mulder.   

Mulder won the ACC three consecutive years, from 2015-2017, and says the adrenaline he feels when hitting a tee shot in front of the assembled crowd is a step up from his days pitching in front of 40,000 fans.

“I never got nervous playing baseball,” says Mulder, a two-time all-star with the Oakland A’s. “But with golf, the first tee every day, dude, I am shaking.”

Mulder says a big part of his success is managing nerves while factoring that into his club selection, as the ball travels farther due to his adrenaline rush.

“The amount of adrenaline I have on that 17th tee box, in golf terms, I will never take whatever club out of that bag and hit it any farther than I do on that tee box,” he says.

Mardy Fish, a former professional tennis player, is among the top golfing talents in the American Century Championship, winning the event in 2020 and finishing runner-up to Steph Curry in 2023, photo courtesy ACC

Mardy Fish agrees. A former pro tennis player, Fish won the ACC in 2020 and consistently finishes in the top 10, placing second to Steph Curry in 2023. He says the interaction between players and the crowd is one of the things that makes the Tahoe tournament so unique. 

“Everyone’s always having a good time, and that’s the spirit of the event,” Fish says of the audience.

However, he was exposed to the downside of a rowdy crowd last year, as a man later found to have put money on Curry yelled during Fish’s backswing.

But Fish downplays the incident, maintaining Curry won because he played better golf more consistently, including sinking a 20-foot putt on the 18th hole to make an eagle for the win.

“I mean, didn’t Steph make like four eagles over the course of the tournament and hit a hole-in-one?” Fish says. “It’s hard to keep up with that.”


‘A Fun, Tantalizing Golf Course’

Along with attendance, Edgewood Tahoe itself has evolved since opening in 1968, with renovations to make the course more challenging. It currently plays 7,445 yards, although the elevation, at just over 6,200 feet, makes the course seem more manageable.

“Because we’re at elevation, the course plays incredibly short,” Mulder says. “But that’s what leads to more birdies and eagles, so it’s fun.”

Despite playing shorter, Edgewood sets up for exciting finishes, featuring two par-5s in the last three holes. The course also has several hazards, including pine trees lining the undulating terrain.

Boats anchor offshore and fans line the beach as Steph Curry tees off at the 2023 American Century Championship, photo courtesy ACC

The 18th hole, in particular, a 572-yard par-5 with a picturesque backdrop and a menacing water hazard that players must clear to reach the green in two shots, has provided for exciting endings in the tournament’s rich history.

“That’s my Tony Gwynn hole,” Smoltz says. “I couldn’t get Tony Gwynn out, and I can’t take care of that hole.”

Del Negro says the key to playing well in the ACC is setting yourself up with precise approach shots, with an eye toward putting uphill.

“It’s like any tournament golf, where the greens play really fast,” Del Negro says. “You have to be really smart in some areas, specifically on a few greens where you hit it because it can be very difficult to set up an opportunity.”

Because most of the holes have a left to right shape, the Edgewood course slightly favors both right-handers who fade the ball and left-handers, like Fish, who draw the ball.

“Nearly every single hole is left to right,” Fish says. “There are a few straight holes out there, but not many.”

Smoltz, who qualified for the U.S. Senior Open in 2018 and has played several courses on the PGA TOUR Champions, says both the quality of play at the American Century Championship and the course itself hold up well in comparison.

“Edgewood is definitely a fun, tantalizing golf course,” he says.


Shooting for Birdie

Another major innovation came when the ACC adopted the Stableford scoring system in 2003. Unlike stroke play, which is used by most golf tournaments, the format awards points at each hole according to the number of strokes taken, with the goal being to score as many points as possible.

At the ACC, a player receives 10 points for scoring a double eagle (also known as an albatross), 8 points for a hole-in-one, 6 points for an eagle, 3 for a birdie, 1 for a par and 0 for a bogey. A double bogey or worse subtracts 2 points.

This format favors aggressive play, as racking up birdies is more important than playing conservatively for par.

Former NBA player and head coach Vinny Del Negro holds the coveted American Century Championship Cup after his 2021 win, photo by Jeff Bayer, courtesy ACC

“You have to go after everything,” Mulder says. “If you make 18 pars, you get 18 points in our system. But if you get nine birdies and nine bogies, you score 27 points. So you can shoot the same score but be way ahead of the other guy on points. That’s why it comes down to who makes the most birdie putts.”

Smoltz maintains that the scoring system is beneficial, but it has also bedeviled his game, which focuses on course management and avoiding big numbers. 

“My scores relative to par are always there, but, really, you have to make birdies,” he says.

Del Negro credits the Stableford system for his victory over Smoltz in 2021.

“That’s the thing about Stableford, is you get to get hot. I had a really good day on Saturday and put myself in the thick of the tournament,” says Del Negro, who also birdied the 18th hole twice, once in regulation and once in the playoff, to emerge victorious.

Besides helping the less skilled golfers in the tournament, the Stableford system quickens the pace of play, as once a player reaches double bogey, they are allowed to pick up their ball and continue to the next hole.

“I’m glad the tournament went to Stableford because no one wants to see guys put out 9s and 10s,” Rypien says. “It’s better to just pick your ball up, take your minus-2 points and move on.”


Best of the ACC

Rypien is one of a handful of players to win the tournament under both the stroke play format and Stableford.

One of the other players to win the ACC under both formats is Rick Rhoden.

The former major league pitcher has won the tournament a record eight times, including the second installment in 1991 and most recently in 2009.

“I’ve hit the ball pretty well,” he says. “I can’t complain about that, for sure.”

Rhoden is modest about his victories, saying many came in the early years, when the competition was not as fierce.

“I think at the start, a lot of the guys hadn’t played competitive golf,” he says.

Former NFL quarterback Mark Rypien won the inaugural ACC in 1990, then called the Isuzu Celebrity Golf Championship, and again in 2014. photo courtesy ACC

But Rhoden continued to excel even as the competition increased and scores improved. 

“Everybody who played out there is an all-star, some are hall of famers in their given sport, but golf is a great equalizer,” he says.

Rhoden did not play golf as a kid, instead picking it up after being selected by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1971 draft and finding he had a natural facility for the sport.

“I didn’t know how to play. I never took a lesson, but I could always hit the ball pretty well,” Rhoden says.

He also credits staying away from the temptations afforded by Lake Tahoe. He says he participated in festivities surrounding the tournament, but also made sure to get enough rest to excel on the links.

“My wife would go out at night with some of the other players’ wives and would come home around midnight,” he says, laughing. “I think she enjoyed the nightlife more than I did.”

Rypien, for his part, says the large gap between his victories could be attributed to the fun he had in the intervening years.

“I would rent a house with eight or 10 buddies in the Tahoe Keys, and, you know, that’s when I think my scores went up,” he says.

Mulder figures anywhere from about 10 to 15 guys have a legitimate chance to win the tournament any given year, and their preparation is different than the celebrities who are there to enjoy the overall experience.

“My wife and I go to all the events and hang out, but we’re not up at 1 in the morning singing karaoke,” he says.

Mulder’s three victories make him one of the few active participants with a chance to supplant Rhoden as the winningest player in ACC history. He joins Tony Romo as the only player who has won three tournaments. Billy Joe Tolliver, the former NFL quarterback, has won four times, and Dan Quinn, the former professional hockey player, has won five times. 

Breaking down ACC victories by sport, football players lead the way with 12 championships overall, followed closely by baseball players with 11. Del Negro and Curry are the only two basketball players to win, and Fish earned the sole victory for tennis in 2020. Among entertainers, actor Jack Wagner owns the only two championships.


Lake Tahoe’s Allure

In 2021, Tahoe Quarterly briefly interviewed former U.S. Vice President Dan Quayle about his frequent participation in the ACC.

“I have been coming to this thing since 1994, and I’ve only missed four,” he said.

When asked why, he gestured toward Lake Tahoe and its spectacular surroundings.

It’s a common refrain. For participants, Tahoe’s natural beauty is one of the chief attractions.

Steph Curry after his 2023 victory, photo by Kurtis Rix, courtesy ACC

“My family makes a trip out of it, arriving a couple of days early or staying a couple of days after the tournament,” Mulder says. “We rent a boat and go out for the day every single year.”

Rhoden says Tahoe’s raw beauty is what sticks with him as he reflects on his experience playing in the ACC.

“You know, you get out there on the 16th hole, the par-5, and you’re looking out at the lake and you’re playing in July and it’s only 75 degrees, and there is some snow on the top of the mountains and you’re thinking, ‘Boy, it doesn’t get any better than this,’” he says.

Aside from the stunning backdrop, ACC participants speak fondly of the relationships they have created and maintained over the years.

“It’s nice to meet people from other sports, but you get to know them and their family and their kids,” Rhoden says. “I played in that thing for 24 years, so I saw their kids grow up, and that’s what I think about, all the good friendships I made.”

Rypien says he enjoys seeing the same folks, year after year, especially those who work behind the scenes to make the tournament possible.

“I always loved seeing the gals on the 16th green, seeing smiles on their faces,” he says. “I am so grateful for the memory and most of all the people. It was like a home away from home.”

Mulder says sharing the experience with his kids in a way he couldn’t during his baseball career are the memories that stick with him. 

“The major highlight for me is just my kids being able to run out onto the green at 18,” he says, adding that his oldest son is a sophomore in high school and golf is his primary sport. “I think the American Century Championship had a lot to do with that,” he says. 

Fish says the best part about the tournament is the opportunity to create friendships with others who are elite practitioners of their craft.

“This is coming up on my 10th year, and I have really enjoyed meeting new people, and I have made a lot of great friendships that don’t even have anything to do with the players,” he says. “So it’s really all about the relationships that you create over the years.”

And winning, of course. Winning always helps.

“My goal every year at the ACC is to try and win,” Fish says. 

While bad at golf, Santa Cruz-based journalist Matthew Renda enjoys watching and writing about the sport nonetheless.

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