To the spectators, Charles Barkley is the face of the American Century Championship. To the people who work at the tournament, it’s Phil Weidinger. Both are loquacious, lovable and a little wrinkled.
“Phil is Oscar Madison,” said Billy Rapaport, the ACC senior field director. “He’s the sportswriter who turned into a PR guy. Everybody loves him.”
Since 1992, Weidinger has been the tournament’s public relations director who represents the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority and NBC Sports. He’s the ACC’s concierge who takes care of the 89 celebrity golfers, more than 400 volunteers and 150 members of the press, who have a tendency to make urgent, last-minute requests.
The tourney has grown from a made-for-television event created to fill the void during a Major League Baseball strike into a weeklong phenomenon and Lake Tahoe showcase that this year — thanks in part by the participation of Steph Curry, Tony Romo and Justin Timberlake — likely will attract 50,000 spectators.
While the actual competition was Friday through Sunday, July 14-16, the ACC has grown into a six-day event. Early in the week, Weidinger was in constant motion, taking phone calls, setting up press conferences, greeting the arrivals, spilling French onion soup on his pants. He’s fervent, but also has most everything under control.
“Now that it’s started, this is the easy part,” said Weidinger, who accurately predicted the ACC’s attendance record would be broken. This year’s new mark was 55,801, a 16 percent increase from a year ago.
A native of San Francisco, Weidiger worked in the late 1970s as the assistant PR director for the San Francisco 49ers, which, he reminisced, was a lousy team with an aging running back named O.J.
He moved to Lake Tahoe in 1980 to be the advertising director for Caesars Tahoe, which later became MontBleu Resort Casino & Spa. He was the tournament director of the 1985 U.S. Senior Open at Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course, the site of the celebrity golf tournament now in its 28th year.
In the early years, the tournament was informal. Fresh off knee surgery in 1992, Joe Namath was allowed to use a golf cart and he let a Tahoe Daily Tribune sportswriter (me) ride with him and ask questions during the first round. Weidinger also set up an interview with Mr. Cub.
“I remember columnist Scott Ostler wrote Ernie ‘Let’s Play 36’ Banks,” Weidinger said.
The tournament is a Lake Tahoe tourism marketer’s dream. Saturday and Sunday’s rounds are broadcast live on NBC, whose cameras pan to lake views and mountainscapes during every commercial break.
“This tournament is a perfect reflection of this destination,” Weidinger said. “If you can’t have fun here, you need to look in the mirror. It’s the perfect complement.”
The ACC was buoyed by the annual participation of Michael Jordan, who has played 17 times.
“One year we had the active MVPs of the three major sports, Jordan, Steve Young and Mario Lemieux,” Weidinger said.
Weidinger can’t help but smile every time he mentions Lemieux, the 40-1 longshot who won it all in 1998. Sacrebleu, Weidinger had $100 on the French Canadian hockey player.
As the tournament has grown, so has Weidinger’s job duties.
“Technology has changed every phase of life, especially media,” he said. “It’s expanding in so many applications and platforms. There are a lot more opportunities to reach the public and it continues to morph.”
Dan Hinxman, who covered Tahoe’s first celebrity golf tournament in 1990 for the Sparks Tribune, is now working the tournament for Weidinger. He writes stories from the media center that are pitched to The Associated Press and daily papers across the country.
“Phil is one of the most likable persons, not just in PR, but anywhere,” Hinxman said. “He’s so easy to know, so easy to like. It’s been a pleasure to work with him all these years, but, by God, don’t tell him that.”
Rapaport, who has worked every American Century Championship, agreed.
“This is a familia event, and Phil has been one of the brothers in arms from Day 1,” he said. “Everybody loves him. As we say in the business, he’s the right tool for painting. He’s Tahoe. He’s Edgewood. He’s this tournament. He’s the Bay Area.”
The American Century Championship is the crown jewel of numerous events supported by Weidinger Public Relations, which has five employees and is based just up the road from Edgewood on Kingsbury Grade. If you don’t see the sign, look for the car with the license plate that reads “Dinger.” The boss is always on the move.
“He’s on during celebrity golf,” said Christina Proctor, who has worked five years at the company as account supervisor/the write stuff. “Sometimes he’s so busy and his mind is always working. You might have to tell him something a couple of times because he’s already moved on to something else. To his credit, when you remind him, he’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s right.’
“He is not only intelligent and good at his job but he’s truly someone who cares about other people and the quality of his work. That’s what’s made him successful in this town for 30 years.”
Jenn Boyd, account supervisor/viral visionary for 10 years, said the office has a creative atmosphere where “feedback is valued and implemented. We’re always laughing in the office but working hard, too. I can tell when he’s pulling someone’s chain. When we get a new team member, I can see when he’s messing with them and I’ll play along. I know his dead giveaways but I don’t want to reveal his secrets.”
Meanwhile, back at Edgewood, Weidinger was asked to step outside. Squinting and feigning agitation for being placed into the harsh Sierra Nevada sunshine for a photograph, Weidinger is never too busy to pull someone’s chain.
The 28th American Century Championship starts Friday. Click the link for tee times: 2017 TEE TIMES Friday