Quinn could be safest bet

All that tinkering to produce a different winner didn't keep Rick Rhoden from hoisting the American Century Championship trophy last July.

A switch from medal play to the Stableford scoring method was implemented last year to give more players a chance to win and keep embarrassing scores to a minimum. But Rhoden used two excellent scoring rounds to outpoint actor Jack Wagner to win his sixth championship.

Players are allowed to pick up their ball on each hole where they reach a double bogey and rewarded incrementally for pars, birdies, eagles and double eagles.

Round two of Stableford, which starts Friday at Edgewood, might provide a more wide-open tournament.

Rhoden is nursing a serious neck injury, which may require fusion surgery following the championship. The former major league pitcher injured his neck two years ago when a Ford Explorer he was driving was rear-ended by a cement truck.

Besides, Rhoden has never won on a even year.

A likely candidate to replace Rhoden as champion is former hockey star Dan Quinn, who is the only celebrity to win the championship on consecutive years (2001 and 2002).

Quinn finished third last year and hasn't finished worse than seventh since 1996.

But it's hard to figure Rhoden not being at least in contention when the players make the turn toward the clubhouse on Sunday. He's shot 10 rounds in the 60s and finished first or second in 10 of his 13 previous championship appearances.

Past champions Billy Joe Tolliver, Dick Anderson, Al Del Greco, Mark Rypien and Mario Lemieux shouldn't be discounted to put it together for another championship run. Tolliver, Anderson and Del Greco probably have the best chances of making a serious bid since they have been consistently good at Edgewood Tahoe.

If fans are looking to hit a long shot at Harveys Resort and Casino or Caesars Tahoe, then you may want to plunk down some money on former big-league slugger Mark McGwire.

McGwire finished 13th last season in his tournament debut and with more free time on his hands than most to hone his game, the 50-1 odds are enticing.

The former single-season, home-run leader also thinks enough of his game to participate in the upcoming 2004 Pechanga California State Open Golf Championship.

As for casino magnet Donald Trump debuting at 5-1 and 8-1 depending where you shop, don't waste your money on him.

Rhoden is the only player to win the title in his debut and "The Donald" is no Rhoden. And this is no pro-am.

Players know that the NBC tower is watching each shot and any slice, hook or wormburner can appear on national TV. Plus, it's a little harder to hit a golf ball when a "trusting" gallery lines the ropes in front of you.

Other players capable of winning for the first time are Wagner, Pierre Larouche, John Elway and Steve Bartkowski. Wagner and Bartkowski's final-round collapses are evoking comparisons to Greg Norman's futility in The Masters.

Wagner has finished second, third or fourth a combined six times, while Bartkowski's final-round collapses have kept him from winning several times. But Bartkowski has been consistently close the past four years. After finishing 27th in 1999, the former Cal quarterback has been sixth, fourth, fourth and third. In each of those tournaments he was able to keep his final round in order, shooting no worse than 74.

There hasn't been a surprise champion since Del Greco won in 2000 and Lemieux pulled off a stunning win in 1998 - the only time he has finished in the top 10.

If you want a good investment with little return, go with Quinn, while McGwire is the best long shot and Bartkowski and Wagner are the most overdue.


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