Twenty-six years ago, the American Century Championship came to Tahoe Edgewood Golf Course.
It was meant mainly to fill out summer scheduling. Nobody expected it to become the hit it has become.
Gary Quinn, vice president of NBC Sports Ventures, has been around for 21 of those years, and he admitted he has been surprised and happy by the tournament’s success.
“Absolutely,” Quinn said in the media room at Edgewood Tahoe on Tuesday afternoon. “My boss( John Miller) started this 26 years ago basically to fill summer programming. It’s turned into something big. It’s the most recognizable field in golf. We’ve also had an unbelievable sponsor in American Century Investments for the past 16 years.”
Putting on a tournament of this magnitude isn’t easy. It’s a tournament players insist they always want to come to and hope they get invited back. Lovable Charles Barkley even postponed his hip surgery so he could play in this year’s event. Cutting down to a workable number isn’t easy.
“We go through a large group of names; a comprehensive list of 300,” Quinn said. “Every year we try to get 20 new names to refresh the tournament. “We invite every NFL starting quarterback and every NFL head coach.
“We have our largest field ever this year and we have 19 new players which is a record. We want to keep things fresh. We do our best to get active players.”
Among the better-known newcomers are former Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Glavine, Rod Gorman, the winner of the Wounded Warrior tournament, Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly, Cleveland shooting guard J.R. Smith, Willie Robertson of Duck Dynasty and musician/actor Justin Timberlake.
According to Quinn, getting Timberlake was huge. Timberlake had his name affixed to a PGA event in Las Vegas for several years, and he’s an avid golfer. When he arrived on Tuesday for his pro-am round, he was surrounded by his personal security force. And, there were a plethora of young women around the putting green.
“Having Timberlake here is big,” Quinn said. “We’ve been trying to get him out here since 2003 or 04. He takes it (golf) pretty seriously. We’ll see how he fares out here. I’m not sure what his handicap is. Guys like this can make $5 million in a week doing shows, so sometimes it’s hard to get them to commit to five days.”
Two of the more well-known names not here this year are Golden State star and MVP Stephen Curry, who had played the last three years. His wife gave birth to their second child late last week.
The other is Lucas Black, who has appeared in 42, Friday Night Lights and the Fast and Furious. He’s one of the stars of the new CBS hit NCIS New Orleans.
“He represented well the last three years,” Quinn said. “Not only is he a big name, but he is a really good golfer. I can’t wait to have him back next year. We sent him a text and told him that if he had a change of heart we’d be happy to have him. We talked to Andre Igoudala (of the Warriors and playoff MVP), but he had a previous commitment. We’d heard that he was starting to get into golf.
“Lucas actually RSVPd and then he got another acting job. He is a really good golfer and a really good guy.”
Quinn admitted his group does background checks on players before making final decisions. “Guys here are very good with our clients and the fans,” Quinn said. “They know the drill.”
In most cases, the players would rather sign autographs than talk to the media. What a surprise.
Quinn said NBC approached Colin Kaepernick about playing, but he has yet to do so. Obviously that would be a big catch, considering he grew up in Northern California and played college football at Nevada. “After his rookie year he said he didn’t want to be distracted (right before camp opening),” Quinn stated.
Current NFL QBs Aaron Rodgers, Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles, Alex Smith and Brandon Weeden are in the 91-player field.
“Bill Murray,” Quinn said without hesitation about who the tournament would love to have. “We’ve always gone after him, but after a while we stopped. He plays Pebble Beach (a lot). He’s a guy we’d love to get here. He’s so good with the fans.”
Another impressive thing is the tournament has overcome not having Tony Romo the past two years and NBA great Michael Jordan. “I don’t think we’ve slipped a bit without them,” Quinn said. “Tony has had some health issues and MJ has been too busy, or he hasn’t gotten a lot of chance to play very much golf.”