STATELINE — Mark Mulder always knew he had enough game to win the American Century Championship. After a handful of close calls, the former All-Star pitcher finally delivered the coveted title in 2015.
“This tournament means everything to me, and to finally win it last year and have my whole family here with me was incredible,” said Mulder, who hosted the tournament’s media day earlier this week at Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course. “It was big — I think about this tournament all year long.”
During his days on the diamond with the Oakland Athletics and St. Louis Cardinals, Mulder watched the celebrity golf tournament in the clubhouse and vowed he would eventually play in the event — and win it. He made his debut in 2010, and quickly discovered finishing atop the leaderboard in Lake Tahoe wasn’t quite as easy as it seemed.
“Sometimes the pressure would get to me because it’s not what I grew up doing,” Mulder said. “With baseball, you could put a million people in the stadium and I wouldn’t hear a single one of them — but you put a couple hundred by the first tee or a thousand by 17 and 18, that’s a different animal.”
Mulder finished in the top eight for three straight years prior to 2015, always undone by a rough round. He was again in contention last year — five points off the lead headed into Sunday’s final round — and put it all together to win with 82 points, two off the tournament record.
“Finally I flipped it, quit thinking about that stuff and started playing better,” Mulder said. “In the final round, I’ve never been that locked in on a golf course — last year was one of the first times it didn’t affect me like it did other years.”
The pressure that got to Mulder in his first five ACC appearances subsided over the three rounds last summer — until the last hole. After reaching the 18th green in two shots Mulder needed only a three-putt to win the championship, and did exactly that to win by one over former MLB pitcher Eric Gagne.
“All of a sudden, I couldn’t tell you whether I was going to hit the putt five feet or 30 feet,” Mulder said. “I couldn’t feel my body — as great as that feeling is, it was awful at the same time.”
With Lake Tahoe as a backdrop, Mulder celebrated the title with his wife Lindsey and children Xander, Tatym and Dax. He said they’ll be back in tow as he attempts to defend the championship.
“Since I won it with them here, I’m so happy I didn’t win it without them,” Mulder said. “Having them out there was awesome — it was really, really cool.”
In addition to dealing with the pressure, Mulder said leaving the driver in his bag was key to getting over the hump last year at Edgewood Tahoe. He often opted for a 3-wood or rescue club in the tee box, and that strategy paired with a strong short game propelled him to the crown.
“For me, it’s whatever is comfortable off the tee,” Mulder said. “You just have to go with your gut, and last year it worked.”
Off the course, Mulder has returned to the Athletics — as a color commentator for 20 broadcasts on Comcast SportsNet California during the 2016 season. After a stint working as an analyst for ESPN, he has embraced a new challenge in familiar surroundings.
“When I went to Oakland for the first time, it was the same security guard and same people,” said Mulder, who was drafted by the A’s out of Michigan State in 1998 and pitched for them from 2000-04. “I know everybody there and there’s just that comfort — like you’re home.
“I’ve absolutely loved it. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Mulder is a co-favorite for the 27th edition of the tournament at 3-1 odds along with former professional tennis player Mardy Fish, who finished fourth last year. The ACC returns to Edgewood Tahoe July 19-24.
“I’ll be more than ready to go,” Mulder said about the potential of repeating as champion. “At one time or another, I’ve had it going in all parts of this course — I love the setup of it and it fits my game.”