Waiting to be interviewed by NBC Sports, celebrity golfer Charles Barkley rested in the shade.
A DJ blasted a song about his native state — “Sweet Home Alabama”– and Barkley raised his fist in acknowledgement. He was on the shoreline at Edgewood Tahoe’s 17th Hole, the so-called party zone and epicenter of the American Century Championship.
As a perennial NBA-All Star known as the Round Mound of Rebound, Barkley became even more successful by using his candor on television. He gained a new nickname: Sir Charles. But at the tournament, everyone calls him Chuck. Lake Tahoe is like a sweet home, too.
The NBC reporter, Heather Cox, noted that Barkley was playing his best golf in 16 years and asked, “Are you the type of golfer who plays better when you’re loose and relaxed?”
“Listen,” Barkley responded, “Since I’ve been rich and famous, I’ve been loose. So I don’t get too excited. I want to play better and I am playing better. I drink beer and I smoke a couple stogies. I just have fun. Listen, I’m on the back nine of life. Nothing upsets me.”
Barkley epitomizesthe spirit of the 30-year-old tournament, which set another attendance record with 60,530 sun-drenched spectators. Across the rope line at the beach, the Sunday crowd was smaller than Friday and Saturday’s. But the spirits were great. Having a boat and being on Lake Tahoe in July will make anyone happy, but adding the ACC to it makes for ecstasy.
“At Hole 17, you see everybody go by; it’s a great place to be,” said Greg Wills, who was with his wife, Sue. As they did in 2010, they towed their boat 510 miles from Twin Falls, Idaho. “Our boat was on TV that year. Last time, we were able to meet Charles Barkley and Oscar De La Hoya. There are a lot more people and a lot more boats now.”
Tom Burkart’s boat had a Green Bay Packers flag. He sat in a Packers chair and drank a can of beer in a foam cheese koozie.
“When you are from Green Bay, you are baptized in cheese, whether you like it or not,” he said.
A retired firefighter, Burkart moved 47 years ago to Tahoe. He’s a celebrity golf veteran. “On Saturday, you have to get here by 7 a.m. to find a space for your boat. … I have eight footballs signed by Aaron Rogers. He also signed my wife’s cheese bra.”
A former Green Bay Packer, retired wide receiver Jordy Nelson, hit a drive that was pushed by the wind into the crowd, landing beside Betty Simonette of Salinas, California. She encouraged Nelson to make a birdie.
“What do I get if I make it?” Nelson asked as he lined up his chip shot.
“I’ll give you a kiss.”
Jordan walked over and gave her a hug. Simonette’s husband didn’t mind. The couple was celebrating their seventh anniversary.
As the tournament has grown, bleachers have been added throughout the course. At the 17th green, Eron McDonough of Clive, Iowa, and his father were in the grandstand.
“It’s like attending an NFL game,” McDonough said. “High energy and as a huge Kansas City Chiefs fan, it was great seeing (tight end) Travis Kelce at the tourney this year. Coincidentally, he stayed at the same floor as me at Harrah’s. We even ran into him. He was pure class.”
The McDonoughs plan to return to the tournament next year.
It was the third time at the ACC for Jim Telich of Pheonix.
“They are the best three times of my life,” he said. “It’s the camaraderie. I’ve met the most enjoyable people. Everybody’s friendly.”
Folsom’s Bryan Greenwalt has been to the tournament 17 years, and each time he brings his boat along with family and friends. One year, his group had 34 in it.
“My 6-year-old daughter doesn’t call it South Lake Tahoe,” Greenwalt said. “She calls it Justin Timber Lake.”
Days before the tournament, Greenwalt totaled his truck and later cut his foot.
“It’s been a rough week but nothing is going to stop this weekend for us. It’s still my Christmas and I am still smiling. I wake up and tell everybody, ‘Merry Christmas.’ This is Christmas for adults.”
The first year Barkley played the ACC was 1993. Lake Tahoe was coming off a seven-year drought, the California side of South Shore’s state line was filled with dilapidated motels that were built in the 1960s. The celebrity golf tournament was a made-for-television event that was starting to gain popularity.
An outspoken athlete in his prime, Barkley was controversial for stating, “I am not a role model.” He used to say after basketball, he might consider running for governor of Alabama. The tournament and a redeveloped South Lake Tahoe are now widely known and revered all across the country. And Barkley is a calm, Zen-like ambassador. Instead of being a politician, he’s more like Santa Claus, who brings good cheer each year with his presence.
— Tim Parsons