(Editor’s Note: With the 23rd Annual American Century Celebrity Golf Championship set to begin Friday, Golferswest takes a closer look at destination golf in the Reno/Tahoe area. That two-part series begins Wednesday).
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE – It has been around for 141 years, so it’s clear that the (British) Open Championship has a huge marketing advantage over the 23-year-old American Century Celebrity Golf Championship at Edgewood Tahoe course.
So guess which one has the higher TV ratings?
Indeed, the Tahoe event actually has beaten the Open for viewers when it has run concurrently. This year again the Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Anne course will smack up against the American Century again. The Open begins Thursday while the American Century is Friday and there’s a good chance the ‘minor’ event will have better TV ratings. That’s because just about every player in the American Century field is recognizable to not only the average golf fan but sports/entertainment fans in general. It’s a tournament with a full panoply of sports figures and a handful of entertainers.
Dallas Cowboy QB Tony Romo is one of the headliners as well as the favorite, according to the bookies. He’s 5/2 to win it. It’s the first time in a while that former big-league pitcher and eight-time winner of the event Rick Rhoden has not been the favorite.
Last year’s winner, soap opera actor Jack Wagner, is tied for sixth at 8/1 odds.
Among the other prominent competitors in the 86-player field are: Michael Jordan, John Elway, Brett Hull, Jerry Rice, Ray Allen, Donald Driver, Urban Meyer, Joe Carter, Greg Maddux, Aaron Rodgers, Goose Gossage, Oscar De La Hoya, Mike Eruzione, Wes Welker, Brandi Chastain, Charles Barkley and comedian Ray Romano.
A recent press conference I attended here featured Romano along with Hank Haney, Tiger Woods former swing coach, and a pair of first-timers at the event, Cowboy wide receiver Miles Austin and former baseball slugger David Justice.
With play set to begin – to be shown on NBC – here’s what they all had to say in advance of Friday’s start:
Q. This is for Miles and for David. If you guys haven’t played at altitude before, how much further do you expect to hit it.
AUSTIN: I have no idea. It’s my first time playing up there. I’m just hoping to hit it straight. If I hit it just as far as I hit it here in Dallas, I’ll be fine. If it goes a little further that will be great but I just don’t want to hit it into the woods.
JUSTICE: I’m going to get there early. I’ll be in on Sunday so I hope to play a couple practice rounds. So I hope that will give me a good judge of the difference. I hit the ball pretty long so I’m interested so the difference.
Q. Do either of you bet on yourselves at the Harrah/Tahoe Sports Book?
AUSTIN: I don’t think so. I don’t like those odds (40/1). Maybe if they were like 1000-to-1 then maybe I’ll put $10 bucks on it. We’ll see about that.
JUSTICE: I definitely won’t put no money on me to win. Can I bet on whether I’ll finish all three days? Three or four days in a row? I’m not used to that.
Q. This is going to be on network TV up against the British Open. But I think the American Century gets higher ratings. We also have a full gallery. You are both rookies, how are you going to calm yourself on the first drive on Friday?
JUSTICE: My hands just started sweating right now as you were saying that. I already know how I’m going to be on the first tee. I just hope I don’t hit nobody in the chest. I definitely won’t have a driver.
AUSTIN: It’s definitely going to be nerve-whacking, especially if everything’s quiet waiting on you. It’s a different kind of feeling with people there and cameras, but I’m just going to say a little prayer when I get up there and see what happens.
Q. This is for Miles. I was wondering if you talked to Tony Romo and if you’re picking him to win as well?
AUSTIN: We did speak about it when I told him I was thinking about doing it this year. He was trying to give me tips but at the end of the day you have to hit the ball straight. They’re giving me basically the rundown on how the whole week goes. I don’t think we’ll be staying far from each other so he’ll be there to give me some tips.
Q. This is for Ray. We saw you at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am and the Drew Brees Celebrity Championship, I’m curious as to how many of these celebrity golf events do you play in and did you ever consider starting one of these events of your own?
ROMANO: Those are the three ones I play, of course, Pebble, Tahoe and Drew Brees. There are couple local ones. I actually had my own celebrity tournament, me and (comedian) Kevin James, for four years. But he kind of gave up golf. He works. He’s got a job now. So we might get another one going.
Q. Will you bring Matt or Greg with you to Tahoe to caddy for you like they did?
ROMANO: Those are my kids, by the way. You mentioned my kids, which scares me a little that you know their names, but that’s OK. They actually caddied for me at the Drew Brees one. Those are my twin 19-year-old boys. The Drew Brees one is very casual one. These guys are actually playing for prize money. This Pebble one, there are pros there. So they actually have to get their feet wet for them to caddy one of those. They don’t even know how to rake the leaves, so don’t know how to rake a bunker.
Q. This is for Hank and Ray as well. Both Charles Barkley and Ray improved greatly, Hank. Charles was 24 points better than the year before and Ray I think was 28 points better. But the year after you worked with them, Ray was seven points worse and Charles was four points better. Does it take a year for these guys for your instruction to sink in?
HANEY: It might take longer than that. For Charles, it might take a lifetime. That’s why we called it the Haney Project. It’s a lifetime project. For Ray, he’s playing better. He made the cut at the AT&T. I was really proud of him there.
ROMANO: But don’t forget, I didn’t have your services. So a lot of bad habits sink back in. I need a refresher course. That’s what I need.
Q. I watched Charles tee off last year and he seemed to lose his hitch and have a more consistent swing. But you think, especially with his weight loss, that’ll be something to look forward to this year?
HANEY: I don’t know if the weight loss is going to do too much. If you have that dressing like a woman thing, that might throw everyone off a little bit. He went with his eyes closed last year. That was his deal. He closed his eyes and hit. And when he did, he didn’t hitch. He hit like five or six drives over 300 yards. So that was absolutely amazing. The only problem was he didn’t get to see any of them. I’m not sure what he’s doing this year.
Q. In 2010, Charles took his long drive left-handed. Do you discourage him from that?
HANEY: He hit his long shots left-handed. He went irons, one handed, right-handed. Then he went short game and putting two-handed. Any option is kind of open here. We’re not really sure what he’s going to go with this year.
ROMANO: Hey Miles. This only thing you have to be nervous about – forget your score because we’re all going to score bad – but you got to come ahead of Barkley. That’s what people are going to notice.
Q. How is your acceptability and your adaptability to instruction? Are you a slow learner, fast learner, a blockhead, do you forget it a week later?
ROMANO: I think I can adapt but my problem is, like any of these guys, we don’t play every day. If this was something I could do every day and an drill it and commit to muscle memory, I think I could adapt well. Unfortunately, this isn’t my profession. My wife only gives me one day a week. There it is right there.
Q. Hank, what kind of student was Ray?
HANEY: Ray’s a good student. He tries really hard but like he said he needs consistent help to get better. That’s what everyone needs. Even the best players in the world, they’ve got people helping them on a consistent basis. It’s such a hard game. You can’t see what you’re doing. It’s definitely not something you’re going to figure out on your own. Ray’s is a good student. He especially got better when I started yelling at him, too.
ROMANO: Yeah, that works with me. That doesn’t mean I’m not into it either. Even though I don’t get to play much, I very much want to get better. I’m very obsessed with the game. You know you can be obsessed with something you stink.
HANEY: Ray finished fifth at the AT&T this year and he had never made the cut before. So he’s definitely getting better.
Q. My question is the David. If you happen to run into Hank on the range, would you want a couple of tips?
JUSTICE: Absolutely. I’m just laying back and waiting for Hank to notice my natural swing. If he wants a project, hey Hank I’m your guy. I’m about two or three tips away from being on Tour. Came on, let’s go. I’ll be the first one out there on the range?
ROMANO: What is your handicap Dave?
JUSTICE: I’ve been as low as seven. I think right now I’m about a 10. So that means about 15 in Tahoe, eh?
ROMANO: No, I think it’s the other way around. Would you say this course, it’s not that difficult is it Hank?
HANEY: Every course is difficult. It’s certainly difficult to shoot the kind of scores that Jack Wagner shot last year, I tell you that much. That’s incredible playing. I think Tony Romo is a phenomenal player. It’s a golf course where you can get it around. Those trees are awful big but something the ball hits those trees and it bounces back into the fairway.
JUSTICE: I think playing in front of a crowd , that will be part that will be the most interested to see how I perform. I’m used to people sitting around watching me play.
HANEY: You don’t have to worry about them seeing bad shots, because they’re been watching Charles for a lot of years.
JUSTICE: I hear that.
Q. Hank, you talked about Charles’ weight loss might not help, but won’t it help him mentally if not physically to make him feel better about himself?
HANEY: There is no doubt that golf is a mental game. You hear people talk about that all the time. They always ask, ‘is golf 90 percent mental like they say?’ And I always say, ‘yeah, golf is 90 percent mental if the other 10 percent is 100 percent correct.’ You have swing but you have to think. You have to put it all together. Charles, with that hitch, has a unique problem. But you know he’s persistent and doing better. Last year he hit a lot of good shots and he didn’t finish last. That’ s pretty darn good.
Q. When Michael Jordan was still with the Bulls he told the media in Tahoe that when he retired he’d had enough time to improve his game to the point he could win the tournament. He’s flirted with the leader board but never really contended. Knowing what you know about the golf swing and the grind of tournament golf, was that realistic for him to think that?
HANEY: Well, the improvement you need to make to reach a level of play that’s better than scratch golf, is really a difficult improvement to make. Going from an 18 handicap to an12 handicap is one thing but going from a 6 handicap to a scratch player and be able to do it at the American Century Classic is a whole another level of the game. Michael plays a good game. I think what makes it so tough is his hands are so big. Golf is such an incredibly difficult game in terms of margin for error, the grip plays such a big part of it. It just makes it tough. And, obviously, being as tall as it is that doesn’t make the game easier.
Q. Ray, Jack Wagner called himself a ‘pipsqueak’ compared to Elway, Romo, Jordan and Ray Allen. Did you consider yourself a ‘pipsqueak’ compared to those guys?
ROMANO: Of course, compared to those guys. But one the one great thing about golf is it’s a great equalizer. You can be a great athlete in another sport but when you get on a golf course the average Joe can compete with those guys. One of my great thrills was I got to play Augusta about 10 years ago with Marcus Allen in my group. He was having a really bad day. He’s better than me, let me get that out in the open, but on that given day I beat him on that round. This is a world class athlete and a I’m a Joe Smoe. That’s the beauty of golf. But the thing is, I could never do it consistently. For me to be 300-to-1 is a joke. You buy that ticket and you frame it as a novelty. There’s not way in the world that a high handicapper can win one of these tournaments.
Q. Is there a sport that adapts better to golf?
HANEY: Typically, the hockey players. They’re using a similar motion in hitting an object that’s to the side of them and it’s also on the ground. So in general, we probably see as a group better athletes that are hockey players than any other sport. But great athletes are great athletes, they can figure out how to play golf.
Q. David, how was your transferring from your baseball swing to your golf swing?
JUSTICE: I think there are a lot of similarities, staying behind the ball, if you get your body going too far forward, you’ll push the ball. There are a lot of things very similar to baseball, getting extension through the ball, don’t over-swing. There are a lot of similarities. I wish I had played golf when I was still playing in my sport. I didn’t start playing until I was retired. This will be my 10th year retired. I kick myself all the time that if I had played golf in the off-season, it really had been an advantage for me. It would have helped me in my baseball game.
Q. Do you root for Jack as an (fellow) entertainment type guy?
ROMANO: No, I don’t get into all that. I just root for it to be competitive. My whole goal when I go to the American Century is to finish in the plus. David and Miles, you’ll see when you get there. It’s a point system. I’ve been playing there about eight years in a row and I’ve only been in the plus one year, plus-5. Every time you double bogey, negative two points. When you bogey you stay the same. Then you grind those pars out. You get one par it’s one point. Then another par. Then, boom, you get a double bogey and it slaps you down two points. You’re struggling to stay about even.
Q. What makes Charles an easy target?
ROMANO: He’s not a target. About once a year I play with Charles, we get paired up together. He’s great to play with. He’s fun.. He’s got a great attitude about the whole thing. He jokes about it but he’s just as serious as anybody is about golf. We can see that. He gives it out and he takes it. He’s a fun guy to be around. He likes to joke and people like to joke with him.