STATELINE, Nev. — A media poll taken prior to the start of the American Century Championship favored several of the tournament’s heavy hitters.
A few were bold enough to choose Stephen Curry, despite his relative inexperience in the event, but most took former NHL star Jeremy Roenick, past winner Chris Chandler and even former quarterbacks Mark Rypien and John Elway.
No one chose the eventual winner Billy Joe Tolliver.
“That’s OK by me,” Tolliver said. “I had me.”
Tolliver won the South Lake Tahoe celebrity golf tournament at Edgewood Golf Club for the fourth time on Sunday, beating Rypien on the third hole of a playoff.
“I’m going to tell you something, I come in here and I tell you I’m playing good, you better jump on,” Tolliver said. “But I didn’t tell y’all that.”
Rypien, the winner of the inaugural event in 1990, carded a runner-up finish for the second straight year. The duo matched pars and birdies on their first two extra shots at the par-5 18th hole before Rypien shot his approach right into Lake Laimbeer, allowing his friend and former teammate to win the event with a modified stableford score of 67 for the week (17-25-25).
Rypien scored 22 points in his final round, also finishing at +67 before the playoff holes.
“Going back there the third time was kind of like Groundhog’s Day,” Rypien said. “That’s a tough hole. We could have been doing this for quite a while.”
Tolliver pocketed $125,000 in winnings. He said his wife, Sheila, may have already spent the money before the check was even in his possession.
“I think I finally played the sympathy card with Mark Rypien, with how many kids I have and my wife and he finally just let me have it,” Tolliver said. “There’s a good chance with all of those kids it was spent before we even got here.”
Curry, the 36-hole leader, was by far the favorite in Sunday’s final round. But his admitted inexperience and excitement may have been to blame for the few miscues that saw him drop into a tie for fourth place.
“That’s a different experience. I knew I was in the hunt, I knew I had a chance to win in the last four holes,” Curry said. “I made a couple birdies coming in and I just hit a couple of bad shots off the tee and wasn’t in a position to make a putt.”
Curry’s performance was arguably the most impressive in the field. Much like other sports, the NBA doesn’t allow players to travel with clubs, so he had only minimal practice coming into the event. Not quite used to the rigors of tournament golf, the fatigue finally kicked in.
“I have stamina on the basketball court, but golf shape is different,” Curry said.
The 50-to-1 long shot didn’t exactly give the gamblers the big payday he had hoped, but he still nearly did the unthinkable. No NBA player, current or former, has ever won the event. It’s a feat even Michael Jordan has aspired to and never quite achieved.
It might not be out of the question for Curry to win before Jordan.
“I think I’ve showed I’ve got what it takes from a certain position,” Curry said. “Obviously, it takes a lot to win. A lot has to go right for you, but this is my second time here. The more I play, the more comfortable I get, especially Sunday.
“Hopefully I can win one day, hopefully sooner rather than later.” Local lore
The most notable playoff in the event came in 1991, the second year of its existence. Former Detroit Pistons star Bill Laimbeer found himself facing Rick Rhoden in the first hole of a sudden-death playoff. He dumped five straight shots into the lake that borders the green of the 18th hole.
Thus, the lake was then officially renamed Lake Laimbeer.
Lake Laimbeer is part of what makes the 18th hole such a great finishing stretch. It forces players to hit a draw to an elevated green, right above the shore of Lake Tahoe.
It’s a frustrating hole — Elway said he hates it because he can never hit the draw — but it has provided some memorable finishes.
Everyone’s a fan
The American Century Championship is known as one of the most fan-friendly events in sports. Players are allowed to sign autographs during rounds, they often pull kids onto the course to pose for pictures and interaction with the bikini-clad crowd is at an all-time high on the beach holes, 17 and 18.
It’s a great event for all involved, including the players, who sometimes become fans themselves.
Following his round on Sunday, professional surfer Kelly Slater waited in the ninth hole scoring area after two other groups concluded. Finally, Slater walked over to NFL Hall of Famer Marcus Allen as he signed his scorecard.
The result? Slater’s caddie took photos of him and Allen in front of the scorers tent.