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Athletes put their 'talent' on display

The celebrity tour has great appeal - even without a guarantee of great golf.

By BOB HARIG

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 29, 2000


Celebrity golf is a curious concept: athletes from other sports coming together in a tournament setting with prize money on the line. Cynics wonder about the appeal.

After all, would someone pay to watch Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer play tennis or bowl?

Perhaps the appeal simply is the opportunity to see well-known players up close and personal playing a game they can't quite master as well as their sport in a much more relaxed setting. Also, it gives those players an opportunity to be competitive in another forum while meeting peers from other sports.

"As a professional athlete, one of the things I miss is the camaraderie of being in the locker room," said former hockey player Dan Quinn, who retired at the end of the 1996-97 season after playing for nine NHL teams, including the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins. "That's what the Celebrity Players Tour has done. We have that (camaraderie) out here. I feel we're fortunate, very lucky to have this tour. To be able to make money at this makes us even more fortunate."

Quinn is in town this week at the Westin-Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor, where he will compete in the Dodge Shootout, a tournament he won last year at Black Diamond. The format is different from other Celebrity Players Tour events in that 10 qualifiers compete hole by hole until one player remains.

Last year Quinn defeated former NFL quarterback and Senior PGA Tour player John Brodie to win the $100,000 first prize.

"Even if a guy doesn't win, the funny thing is there are different levels of competition," Quinn said. "Yes, in some of the events, not everybody has a chance to win. You might have guys trying to break 80 for the first time. But guys are trying to do their best, trying to compete, trying to please the fans and the sponsor."

That, of course, is a big factor in the success of celebrity golf. Pro-ams are the lifeblood of any golf tour, but they are not necessarily the focus of players on the PGA and Senior PGA tours. To them, pro-ams are a necessary evil, part of the process.

But in celebrity golf, the pro-ams are crucial. Events would not survive without them. And the players embrace the idea.

"Our thing is about entertaining the corporate people and sponsors. As long as they're happy, we're happy," said former major-league pitcher Rick Rhoden, who returns this year after finishing third in last year's Dodge Shootout. "We love to have the fans out there, and it's a place where they can get close to athletes, unlike at the ballpark. We know we have to entertain corporate America, and we're as much about being an entertainment tour as a golf tour."

The Dodge Shootout format includes 36 holes of stroke-play qualifying today and Friday. The event is not open to the public, but resort guests can watch for free. A Fourth of July package is available. Call (727) 942-2000 for information.

Among those scheduled to compete are former baseball players Johnny Bench, Gary Carter, Carlton Fisk and Mike Schmidt; current and former football players, including John Elway, Terrell Buckley, Brad Culpepper, Brian Kinchen and Joe Theismann; former pro tennis player Ivan Lendl, and celebrities, such as Adam Baldwin.

The top eight qualifiers advance to Saturday's shootout along with Quinn and Florida football coach Steve Spurrier, who received a sponsor exemption into the shootout final.

"I think the success and popularity of the celebrity tour has done a lot for a lot of people," said NFL placekicker Al Del Greco, who finished fourth at the Dodge Shootout last year. "It's done a lot for my awareness. People are interested in what a lot of us have to do with golf; they want to ask us questions and make comparisons to themselves. They can see themselves in us."

Celebrity golf has given the average fan an appreciation of the game's difficulty. They see the athleticism of Charles Barkley on a basketball court, the way he could dominate his game, then watch him become frustrated by a little golf ball.

"I played a sport where you wanted to get as excited as you could, as fired up as you could," Quinn said. "In golf, you can't play like that. You have to have an even keel. In hockey you have a much different mind-set. You compete and battle. In golf you do, too, but it's different. You can't get too up or too down. And I think that's part of the attraction for everyone."

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