While the top names in professional golf will be at the British Open, the next tier will be appearing at the RTO. The third group of amateur golfers, including pros in many other sports, will be striking the spheroid at Tahoe.
Of all the three events, it is a good chance that the South Shore tourney could attract the most television viewers. That is because NBC will air the Saturday and Sunday celebrity event at the best viewing time of the day. The RTO will only be featured on the Golf Channel and the time difference between here and Britain could cut into the TV audience for the British Open.
So, what makes Tahoe’s event the top dog in viewer numbers? It is mainly because of this country’s (as well as other countries’) obsession with the celebrity status of athletes in baseball, basketball and football as well as some entertainers of note.
The sheer magnitude of celebs like Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and even Donald Trump draw throngs of spectators to attend the three-day Tahoe event. The quality of the golf pales in comparison to the overwhelming desire of fans to grab an autograph from one of these superstars.
While it is true that a few of them are fairly low-handicap players, there is certainly no chance that any of them will ever achieve the golfing status of, say, Tiger Woods. However, for sheer entertainment in the most spectacular geographical setting that you can find anywhere on Earth, nothing comes close to the beauty of Tahoe as a backdrop.
To amplify that point, all you have to do is pick up a copy of the current ESPN Magazine and read the five-page article by writer Eddie Matz. In describing the American Century event, Matz waxes almost rhapsodic as he describes not only the golf, the setting and the excitement of the tourney, but also the high-powered “party atmosphere” that exists not only on the links but also in the sponsoring hotels and casinos on the South Shore after the golf day is done.
Along with hordes of fans that follow the players around the course, the beaches near the final holes are packed to the limit and there is a flotilla of boats of all sizes anchored on the pristine waters of Tahoe. It is that TV image that has done more to spread the beauty of the “Lake in the Sky” than all of the millions of postcards that have been sent out over the years could ever do. Usually, there are some snow-capped mountains in these shots that give the local chamber of commerce even more to gloat about when touting the year-round attractions of the lake.
Strangely enough, one of the poorest golfers in the tournament over the years enjoys one of the largest galleries of spectators. I refer, of course, to Charles Barkley, former roundball superstar and NBA Hall of Famer. Many in the crowds, duffers themselves, compare Barkley’s golf swing to their own and come away pretty pleased with themselves.
One famous participant through the years, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, might be among the missing this year.
Although there are hundreds of celebrity-type golf tournaments held around the country every year, none can even come close to the Tahoe affair. However, it might be wise to remember that the best celebrity golf tournaments in the country, during the ‘60s and ’70s, were held right here in northern Nevada.
It all started when Elko hotelier Newt Crumley came to Reno and purchased the newly build Holiday Hotel (now the Siena). An avid athlete and sportsman himself, Crumley quickly started an annual golf tournament call the Mug Hunt. His celebrity attendees consisted mainly of former professional baseball greats and he usually had a couple of Hall of Famers sprinkled among the field, which was made up of amateurs who were in good standing with his casino operation.
Crumley was so successful that Harrah’s quickly latched onto the idea and created its format, which was largely located at South Shore. Harrah’s had some pro athletes but mostly utilized top names in the entertainment field to give its event some pizzazz.
Next to join in the promotion of celebrity golf tournaments was Charles Mapes, owner of the Mapes hotel. His three-day events featured current and ex-NFL stars, such as Y.A. Tittle, John Brodie, “Dandy” Don Meredith and basketballer Rick Barry, as well as baseball luminary Joe DiMaggio.
Rounding out the local tourney scene was John Ascuaga’s Nugget, which sponsored equally star-studded events.
In those early days there were only a few golf courses in existence, so the local golf pros played a major part in the success of the offerings. Eddie Jones was at Hidden Valley, Pete Marich at Washoe and George Bayer at Incline.
So, if you happen to tune in to the American Century bash next weekend, remember that it had its genesis here some 50 years ago.
Hats off to Newt Crumley for starting it all.
Harry Spencer is a freelance writer in Reno. His column about the past and present of northern Nevada appears weekly in the Tribune.
Editor’s note: Opinions expressed in Harry Spencer’s column are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Tribune.