How a Lull in the Sports Calendar Created a One-of-a-Kind Event

Celebrities and athletes clamor to be a part of the American Century Championship every year, with the competition now a cornerstone of pop culture.
Curry won the 2023 American Century Championship, hitting a hole-in-one in his charge to victory.
Curry won the 2023 American Century Championship, hitting a hole-in-one in his charge to victory. / Tom R. Smedes/Special to RGJ / USA TODAY

In the fall of 1989, NBC lost its rights to broadcast Major League Baseball. In the absence of all those games—all that tonnage, in TV speak—the sports division’s hard-charging new president, Dick Ebersol, cleaned house and tasked the employees he didn’t fire with conceiving of replacement summer programming.

Jon Miller, then a young NBC executive, came up with a concept that would tap the competitive juices that course through pro athletes. Why not create a golf tournament, pitting members of the Republic of Jock against each other?

A solid idea, sure. But he had no way of knowing that, 35 years later, the event would draw the biggest titans in sports. That it would deliver ratings to NBC comparable to those of a run-of-the-mill PGA broadcast. That it would raise millions for local charities. Or, for that matter, that it would figure prominently in the first felony conviction of a former U.S. President. “We were just trying,” says Miller, “to get something new off the ground.”

Miller’s idea was to hold the event in the July window when the major sports—save baseball—were in their offseasons. The tournament would span 54 holes over three days, and there would be no cut. NBC would stage the event somewhere accessible, but also exotic, offering a telegenic tableau. The network settled on Tahoe, in part because (again with the competitive juices) the athletes could spend downtime gambling. Hit your woods and irons in the day. Hit the casinos at night.

Held at the Edgewood Tahoe golf course in Nevada from July 12 to 15, 1990, the inaugural “Celebrity Golf Championship” drew 48 athletes, as well as eight non-sports celebrities with handicaps of 10 or better. There were no appearance fees nor subsidized travel—which remains the case today—and a modest $400,000 in total prize money. But there were bragging rights in the balance. And a chance to prove to the world that your aptitude for shooting a ball into a hoop or directing a puck with whipcrack precision could translate and transfer to another sport. Same for the ability to meet the moment, perform under pressure and reset after a rough patch.

This is why even the first field recalled a sports encyclopedia, opened to scattered pages. A few weeks after winning his third NBA title (broadcast on NBC), Michael Jordan made good on his promise to the network chieftains to bring his clubs to Tahoe. Jordan ended up in ninth place with a more-than-respectable three-day score of 228. Meanwhile—to pick some random names at, well, random—Rollie Fingers finished a stroke ahead of Bill Laimbeer, who finished two strokes ahead of Dan Marino.

Kelce is one of several NFL stars set to take part in the 2024 American Century Championship.
Kelce is one of several NFL stars set to take part in the 2024 American Century Championship. / Tom R. Smedes/Special to RGJ / USA TODAY

The literal highlight of that maiden event came on the first day, when John Elway chipped in from five yards off the green, scoring an eagle on the 501-yard closing hole. The clip made it onto SportsCenter, the apotheosis of the time, giving the event some instant currency. Elway led after that round, then faded and ultimately tied for 11th (alongside Rick Barry and Phil Simms) with a score of 230.

The event’s winner was a different active NFL quarterback, Mark Rypien. The loser—that year, anyway—was NBC. “We didn’t have a sponsor,” says Miller. “And we lost our shirts.” (American Century Investments would eventually become the title sponsor in 1998.)

Ebersol, though, gave Miller a mulligan. The next year—and virtually every year after—the event drew more fans, a stronger field and better ratings. A title sponsor followed. Gradually, then suddenly, the American Century Championship grew to become a fixture on the sports calendar.

This year’s iteration, the 35th, begins July 10, with entrants competing for $750,000. Steph Curry—whose ace on hole No.7, and subsequent victory lap on the fairway, went viral (see below)—will not defend his title from 2023. (His absence is excused as he needs to prepare for the Paris Olympics.) But the ’24 field will include Travis Kelce (last year’s long drive champion at 367 yards), Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, Blake Griffin, Austin Reaves (the self-proclaimed best golfer in the NBA), Stanley Cup champion Matthew Tkachuk, Larry Fitzgerald, and, it seems, half the men who line up behind center in the NFL: Trevor Lawrence, Joe Flacco and, as ever, Aaron Rodgers.

Already, the event has pierced the public consciousness this year … all on account of what happened in 2006. That year, the field featured a familiar figure, donning a familiar red ball cap, as well as a yellow-gold shirt adorned with his family’s coat of arms. Donald Trump, then 60, came to Tahoe hoping to improve on his three-day score of 241 from the previous year. At the time, he was newly married to Melania, a father to an infant son, and a star of The Apprentice which, not coincidentally, aired on NBC.

On the day of the final practice round, Trump toured the floors of Harrah’s Lake Tahoe Hotel & Casino, where various items of swag—sunglasses, golf contraptions, wine—were available, gratis, to the players. Amid the legitimate sponsors, one enterprising outfit managed to set up a surreptitious sponsor table: Wicked Pictures, a California pornography studio, sent actresses to Tahoe as, what it called, “good-will ambassadors.”

Trump struck up a conversation with one such emissary, Stephanie Clifford, also known as Stormy Daniels. Years later, she would testify under oath that she and Trump began a sexual affair that weekend. (He would deny there was ever a relationship, calling it a “total con,” and dismissing Daniels as “horseface.”)

After the alleged sexual congress, Trump’s then-personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, paid Daniels $130,000 in what he termed a hush money payment. This May, a New York jury found Trump guilty of 34 felony charges of falsifying business records related to the payments in an effort to keep the entanglement with Clifford from potential voters. All of this, of course, stemmed from their encounter in Tahoe. (Trump claimed the case was rigged, called the star witness against him a “sleazebag” and said the judge was a “devil” and “highly conflicted.”)

Perhaps distracted that weekend 18 summers ago, Trump’s three-day score of 268, put him in 62nd place. Still, it placed him 39 strokes ahead of the last-place finisher that year … a figure who Miller calls “far and away the most valuable player we have at this event.”

Barkley has been a staple of the golf tournament since 1993.
Barkley has been a staple of the golf tournament since 1993. / Jim Krajewski/RGJ / USA TODAY NETWORK

Charles Barkley came to Tahoe for the first time in 1993—the month after playing in his only NBA Finals—and marveled at the setting. As he puts it, “Lake Tahoe is the only place in the world where I don’t sweat in July.”

Some athletes are golf ringers, able to transfer the touch and hand-eye coordination to this precision sport. Others have inherent talent and show clear signs of becoming scratch golfers if only they commit themselves. Barkley fits neither of these categories.

By his own admission, he lacks both accuracy off the tee and a deft touch on the green. Flawed as it is, his stroke yields an array of slices, shanks and worm-burners. But Barkley brings his winning personality and generosity of spirit. And the event is, immeasurably, better for it.

In 2007, a wildfire destroyed more than 250 homes near the course. Barkley was uncomfortable playing leisurely rounds of golf and enjoying his surroundings amid so much suffering. So, unprompted, he quietly donated $100,000 to the Community Disaster Resource Center of South Lake Tahoe. He also toured the area and hosted a dinner for 100 firefighters. When Barkley returned the following year, he contributed another $90,000. He calls the event “a total highlight of my year” and once delayed hip surgery so he could compete.

He has no ambitions of winning and usually comes armed with self-effacing jokes about his golf game. But that makes him the exception. The majority of the field comes with desires of taking the trophy. Which is critical. While the entire premise for the event has all the makings of schlocky, made-for-TV celebrity excess, its resistance to cheap yucks marks the crux of its success. This is earnest competition. PGA officials work the event. Competitors are asked to wear long pants. There are rule experts providing guidance. Every stroke counts. Every player on the field is expected to walk the course, even one who may have come perilously close to having his foot amputated: former NFL quarterback Jim McMahon. The Chicago Bears legend is also the only athlete who has played every year of the tournament's existence.

Perhaps, as a result, the list of winners is a curious one. Some years—to the delight of the sponsors and the NBC beancounters—an A-lister like Tony Romo (2018, ’19, ’22) or Curry (’23) has finished atop the leaderboard. But often the winner is hardly the entrant with the most celebrity wattage. Rick Rhoden, a former Major League pitcher of modest distinction, has won eight times. Another pitcher, Mark Mulder, is the only player to win three consecutive titles (2015-17). Jack Wagner, former soap opera star and pop singer, has won twice. “It’s such a fun week; there’s entertainment; there are great times,” says Dan Jansen, the former Olympic skater who’s played more than a dozen times starting in 1998. “But we are coming from a competition background, so this gets the fight going again.”

Which is not to say there haven’t been some lighter moments. In 2014, A.J. Hawk came to the No. 7 hole and was greeted by a beery group of fans from Sacramento. One of them wondered what it would feel like to collide with an NFL linebacker. So he requested that Hawk tackle him. You sure you want to do this? Hawk wondered. When the guy reaffirmed his wish, Hawk shrugged, removed his watch, took a five-yard start and pancaked the guy (below). The lawsuit feared by the NBC suits never came. Hawk got an earful from his father but earned a lot of fans who followed him for the rest of the weekend.

In 1991, Laimbeer plopped five straight shots into the pond protecting the 18th hole, a water hazard thereafter christened Lake Laimbeer. The Curry family has a standing bet that among Steph, brother Seth, and father Dell, the player with the highest score has to jump in the lake. Last year, Ray Romano interrupted his round to sign the belly of a bikini-clad fan.

If it’s good fun for the fans and the players, it’s good business for NBC. It’s not simply profitable programming; it pays year-round dividends, especially during NBC broadcasts. Miller says, “Travis [Kelce] or Pat [Mahomes] will say to us, ‘If you need anything when you're doing a Chiefs game, if you need me and you're having an issue, you just come to me directly.'” Same, Miller says, for Rodgers, who was invited in 2005 shortly after the Green Bay Packers drafted him out of Cal, which is just a few hours away. “He has never forgotten that,” says Miller. “[The event] has helped really build a lot of strong equity and relationships with people.”

Rodgers can assume safely that he will be asked to play each year. Lesser names go to great lengths to receive a return invitation. When, say, Trevor Lawrence gets invited, it means someone from the previous year’s roster gets disinvited. “You get some nasty emails and some tough voicemail messages,” says Miller. “You know, it's hard because these guys become friends and they love the event and their families love the event. But in order to fulfill our commitment to American Century, it's really important that we keep the field fresh.”

In 2019, Justin Timberlake was disappointed to learn that the event fell during a tour swing. Concerned that if he took a pass, he might never get back on the guest list, he improvised. He played his Friday round, flew to Florida where he performed a concert and flew back to Tahoe afterward in time to make his Saturday tee time. All things considered, his 38th-place finish—ahead of Jerry Rice and behind Greg Maddux—was more than respectable.

Mike Eruzione, the former U.S. Olympic hockey star, played each year for the first 27 years. But then, a family member’s wedding conflicted with the date for the golf event, and he tried to prevail on the bride to change the date. She did not. And, he has not been in the field since 2018.

It’s not just the competitors who take the event seriously. Last year, the tennis player Mardy Fish, who won the event in 2020, was leading in the final round. Before a tee shot on the 18th hole, Fish started his backswing when a fan yelled Hey Fish, eff you, you suck. Not surprisingly, he misstruck his tee shot. It was wildly out of character for a good vibes event. But Fish later learned this was no common heckler. This was a sports gambler who had bet on Curry to win the event—yes, there are betting lines on this tournament—trying to sabotage a potential threat to his money.

Ask Fish about the experience and he is more eager to talk about the virtues, “The relationships you create with folks you’d never crossed paths with in your respective sports.” Specifically, he mentions the boxer Canelo Alvarez. “Because of Tahoe, we are great friends,” he says. “Life is about creating memories with people you want to spend time with. That’s Tahoe.”

Jon Wertheim


Jon Wertheim is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated and has been part of the full-time SI writing staff since 1997, largely focusing on the tennis beat , sports business and social issues, and enterprise journalism. In addition to his work at SI, he is a correspondent for "60 Minutes" and a commentator for The Tennis Channel. He has authored 11 books and has been honored with two Emmys, numerous writing and investigative journalism awards, and the Eugene Scott Award from the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Wertheim is a longtime member of the New York Bar Association (retired), the International Tennis Writers Association and the Writers Guild of America. He has a bachelor's in history from Yale University and received a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania. He resides in New York City with his wife, who is a divorce mediator and adjunct law professor. They have two children.