There’s a heat wave gripping the Western United States and it apparently has affected the golf clubs of a whole slew of participants at this week’s American Century Championship.
As the mercury climbed approaching record-setting heat, so too did the point totals of past champions, new favorites and perpetual challengers. As Saturday dawns for what is traditionally the most fan frenzied day at Edgewood Tahoe, make no mistake, there’s also a major horse race shaping up to determine the 2021 ACC champion.
The modified Stableford scoring system rewards aggression, where birdies are worth 3 points, while bogey’s only count as minus-one. A par nets one point.
Former Atlanta Braves pitcher and Cy Young award winner John Smoltz sits atop the leaderboard with 25 points after his best opening round at the ACC with five birdies, despite a three-putt par at the par-five 18th hole.
“This is the event I’ve always wanted to win”, said Smoltz. “I’ve always been a little too focused on making pars. Tomorrow I plan to stay aggressive”
About the time Smoltz was finishing up his post-round interview, lighting struck on the 18th green as the first ever recorded double eagle or “albatross” was made by former Dallas Stars star (and San Jose Shark nemesis) Mike Modano. A perfectly struck 7-iron second shot resulted in 10 points, vaulting Modano into a tie for the lead with Smoltz at 25.
Modano, making a somewhat unexpected trip to the press room appeared as bewildered with his feat as pleased.
“At 51 my eyesight isn’t great, and I can barely see it come off the club,” he said. “But Osh (fellow hockey player and competitor T.J. Oshie) and the fans up by the green started going nuts so I figured something good happened.”,
Joining Modano for his interview was former Shark and current Dallas Star Joe Pavelski, who’s eagle at the 11th hole had just been upstaged by Modano, sits in second place at 24 points. Pavelski has shown good recent form in this event and is looking to finish strong on the weekend for the first time.
If Modano’s presence on the leaderboard is a mild surprise, so too is 61-year old Jack Wagner, who finished tied with Pavelski at 24 points. Wagner, along with Jim McMahon are the only two players to have competed in the first 32 editions of this tournament, and as Wagner pointed out, he’s now at 33.
Wagner admitted as the 2011 Champion, and a veteran of the celebrity circuit that seeing his pre-tournament odds at 30-1 added some extra motivation. Currently shooting a ninth-season of “When calls The Heart” on the Hallmark Channel, a win at the American Century would be right out of a Hallmark movie.
Speaking of comebacks, three players sit in a tie for fifth at 23 points including LPGA Hall of Fame member and part-time Incline Village resident Annika Sorenstam. The two-time US Women’s Open Champion is the snake in the woodpile this week, having come out of years of hibernation with a handful of LPGA appearances in 2021. Her results in those events haven’t been notable, but Edgewood is probably set up easier than any track she’s played on tour this year.
Playing the same tournament tees as the men she joked that playing partner Tony Romo hit his rescue club as far as her driver. But don’t be fooled, Sorenstam can produce machine-like accuracy when she is on. After making two bogeys with wedge approaches, she lamented how uncharacteristic those mistakes once were. If she corrects them, watch out.
Speaking of Romo, the winner here in 2018 and 2019 stands ninth at 20 points. Last years champ, Mardy Fish opened with 18 points, while 2015, 2016, and 2017 winner Mark Mulder opened with 19 points. The winners of the last six American Century Championships are well within striking distance after 18 holes.
And what of fan favorites the Currys? Steph had one of his best opening rounds, finishing in 8th position with 21 points. He’s in good shape to best Dad Dell (13 points) and brother Seth (7 points).
Curry with join Romo and Sorenstam in the marquee group at 9:42am on Saturday. Expect more heat and fireworks on Saturday.