SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — Between Rick Rhoden and Billy Joe Tolliver, 11 of the past 23 American Century Championship titles were sitting at the press conference table Wednesday.
Tolliver summed up their secret to success in two words: “Fireball whiskey.”
But all joking aside, the two are obviously bringing more than just whiskey to the ACC this weekend. Former MLB pitcher Rhoden has a tournament-leading eight championships to his name. Tolliver, a former NFL quarterback, has captured three.
The strength of Rhoden’s game has always been driving with accuracy.
“You get in those trees, bad things happen. So that’s probably why I’ve played good here, just because I drive,” Rhoden said.
The simple strategy of staying on the fairway has worked well for Rhoden in past years. So has playing in the wind, conditions Rhoden notoriously shines under. What’s his secret? Counterintuitive, but Rhoden said he actually swings softer and grabs more of the club to eliminate spin.
This year, however, Rhoden said a repeat title will simply come down to if his game is on or off.
“I think years back, I was a better player when it was windy. I was a better player all around,” Rhoden said. “I can play good in spurts now.
“Hopefully this week will be one of those times when I’m playing really good.”
Rhoden and Tolliver are ironing out those kinks this week in practice rounds leading up to the tournament start on Friday. While they’re out there, they’ve noticed a few new competitors.
“Guys have gotten better… Mark Mulder is ready to fire at it. We’ll have to watch him pretty close,” Tolliver said. “(Mark) Rypien’s playing really well.
“So about Friday, when the lights come on you got to see if you can flip that switch.”
Tolliver isn’t the only one who’s noticed Mulder’s improved game.
“I think he’s right. Mulder is going to be in the mix now,” Rhoden said. “He’s got some talent, plus he hits the ball about nine miles.”
Sounds like pitching skills transfer will on the golf course.
“First of all, they’re the best athletes,” said Rhoden of pitchers.
He might be biased, but in reality there might be something to the pitchers-equal-good-golfers theory, or in Tolliver’s case, former quarterbacks.
“Throwing the baseball is very similar; even though you’re doing it overhand, your body action is very similar to hitting a golf ball,” Rhoden said. “As far as the football players’ play, when you get away from the quarterbacks and the kickers, they’re all so big, it’s hard to play.”
So far, Rhoden is the only baseball player who has won an ACC title, but with 10 pitchers competing this year it’s only a matter of time. There are six pitchers ranked in the top 20 heading into the tournament— Mulder, John Smoltz, Tim Wakefield, Derek Lowe, Trevor Hoffman and, of course, Rhoden, who is ranked No. 2.
Quarterbacks are equally well represented. Tolliver, Rypien, John Elway, Trent Dilfer and Carson Palmer are all in the top 20.
“There’s probably five guys mixed in that are going to make a run that haven’t made a run before,” Tolliver said. “I suspect it will be a pretty tight Sunday, and we might get our first playoff ever in Stableford format. Hard to do.”