Vinny Del Negro had a knack, despite being somewhat underrated, for performing in the clutch during his 12-year NBA career. “You gotta lock in and get it done,” Del Negro’s father used to say. Turns out at 75-1 odds, Del Negro was once again underestimated, and when it mattered, he locked in and got it done.
Del Negro defeated John Smoltz on the first playoff hole to win the 2021 American Century Championship, Lake Tahoe’s 32nd annual celebrity golf tournament. As the final putt dropped a triumphant Del Negro pointed to the sky and let out a guttural yell in celebration. Moments later the reaction became clear in a televised interview with NBC’s Jimmy Roberts, as he revealed that his father had passed away on Wednesday.
“I didn’t want anyone to know,” he said, wiping away tears. “I haven’t slept since Wednesday, maybe a couple hours a night.”
Smoltz said is the press room after the round that he heard Del Negro keep telling himself to “lock it in.”
“That’s what my dad used to tell me,” Del Negro said. “When I would miss a shot or a game, I’d have a good game, he would come to me, why did you miss a free throw. Or I’d have 25 or 30 points in a game, should’ve had 35, whatever it was. You can do better. Lock in. Lock in. Tough it out. Hit the shot. Don’t worry about the last shot. Focus in on this shot.
“And that’s what I tried to do. And I just thought about him walking down 18. I kept talking, like, in my head. It kind of calmed me down a little bit because you still have to hit the shot.
“I blocked out the fans. Blocked out kind of what I wanted to do, the area I wanted to hit the ball. And I just had him in my head, like — my father wasn’t happy with second place. He wasn’t a second-place type of old school guy. And I wanted to come in first for him.”
After Del Negro birdied the final hole of regulation, Smoltz’s par left them deadlocked at 69 points. Another blistered drive by Del Negro when it counted, and Smoltz’s second consecutive poor tee shot off the 18th tee essentially ended things.
Smoltz, who slept on the lead after the first and second round appeared to be on his way to his first ACC win after three birdies on the front nine got him to 62 points, three clear of Del Negro. After a good up and down for what would be his last birdie of the tournament at the par-5 16th, he stood on the tee at 17 knowing two more pars would likely be enough.
That’s when Hall of Fame pitcher Smoltz, lost his fastball. A poor tee shot led to a bogey and zero points at 17, and then a pulled tee shot on 18 forced a layup and a one-point par. Del Negro’s perfect drive and a nine-iron approach left him with 30 feet, which he two putted for the tying birdie.
“I made just enough shots coming in, big birdie on 16, but a horrible swing on 17,” Smoltz said. “I think that’s the first time I’ve ever hit that tree. But all in all, I had a chance. I just couldn’t find my swing on 18. Like I said, it’s not a good visual hole for me. I hit two horrible drives.
“Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy for Vinny to win. I love playing with Vinny. He played way better than I did today. Hit his driver really outstanding. I can’t imagine going through the last three or four days knowing that and trying to play in a golf tournament. So he definitely he earned it.”
Annika Sorenstam has accomplished more than most in the game of golf including being a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. But in the last 10 years the Incline Village resident has focused on raising a family with her husband Mike McGee, and giving back through through the Annika Foundation, which she created in 2007.
Sorenstam had a chance for the first time in 13 years, to win a golf tournament. Starting the day five points behind the Smoltz, the nerves showed up early with a badly pulled approach to the first green. Double bogey, and a seven-point deficit before Smoltz even played a hole. Birdies at the fourth, 12, and 16 got her back in the mix. But, after her birdie effort at 17 narrowly slid by the edge of the hole and a pushed approach to the par five 18th resulted in closing pars, she finished in fourth place at 64 points.
“It was fun. I loved it” she said. “I told Mike, it’s great to be here. You can really feel it. I haven’t really felt what it’s like to be under the gun like this. And it’s fun. I liked it. I wish I would have executed a little better. But awesome week.”
Sorenstam, who turned 50 last October, will be playing in the USGA Senior Women’s Open later this month at Brooklawn Country Club in Fairfield, Connecticut. As a three-time USGA Women’s Open Champion Sorenstam is fully exempt into the Championship.
Notes: Two-time champion Tony Romo made a late charge with birdies at 16 and 18, but finished third. Steph Curry, playing in the penultimate group with Romo and Sorenstam, posted three double bogeys but finished with an eagle at 18 to finish ninth. … Two-time winner Jack Wagner was in position early in the final round trailing the leader Smoltz by only three points through five holes but five bogeys and two double bogeys coming home dropped him to a fifth place finish … Wagner and former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon have played in all 32 Tahoe tournaments. McMahon finished tied for 61st. … Do you believe in miracles? Charles Barkley’s game has improved thanks to working with instructor Stan Utley, but he failed to cash the bet he made on himself at 5-1 to finish in the top 70. He scored minus-28 and finished 77th, beating 11 players, including the lowest scorer, announcer Al Michaels, minus-85.