Lake Tahoe, NV (SportsNetwork.com) - The greatest female golfer to ever play the game is coming out of retirement this week. But she's not returning to the LPGA Tour, instead she'll be playing against a group of "washed up athletes", to quote former quarterback Billy Joe Tolliver, in the American Century Celebrity Golf Championship.
Hall of famer Annika Sorenstam, a 17-time LPGA Tour winner and 10-time major championship winner, is the odds-on favorite to win the event that has long been dominated by quarterbacks and other former sports stars. While she's one of three women in the field and not the first to tee it up in the event, it marks the first time a woman has been favored.
"Well, when we hear Annika's playing, it kind of shakes us up a little bit," said Steve Schorr, the director of the Harrah's Lake Tahoe sportsbook. "What are we going to do with Annika? And it's a decision we kind of toss it around. And on the positive side, she's a champion golfer. On the negative side, the Stableford system. We think that it probably favors the men a little more. She won't be driving as far as the guys sitting at this table."
Annika agreed to play from the same tees as the men at Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course, a course she has previously played twice and recorded scores of 71 and 67. It's an area she's familiar with, as she has maintained a residence in Incline Village for a number of years and has even been seen at the tournament as a supporter in years past. Given her history with the Lake Tahoe area, the odds were already favorable.
"So we think about it, and we threw out the number of 2-to-1, and a lot of people thought at 2-to-1 she was a bargain," Schorr said. "So as the betting came in, we lowered the odds. And as of today, we are 12 to win 10.
"So pretty much all the money is on Annika."
Former major leaguer Rick Rhoden, a seven-time winner who has long dominated the event, knows what it's like the have all of the money on him. He's faltered as the favorite before. But then again, the one-time Champions Tour player didn't exactly have a similar golf career.
"She's got to be the favorite. I mean, we don't have any of those kind of trophies at our house," he said. "She'll be in there, obviously. She's not going to rattle like some of our guys the last day. She's probably got a better wedge game or short game than all of us."
But Sorenstam's presence isn't changing the way the rest of the field prepares. Billy Joe Tolliver, who won the event for the fourth time last year, still insists he's a headliner.
"I don't want all the heat to be just thrust upon her all the time," the former NFL quarterback said. "It's like John Smoltz, he sent me a text message saying, 'Hey, did you see Annika Sorenstam's in the tournament?' And I sent him back a text saying, 'You know what she's doing to her friends right now? She's texting her friends right now saying, dang, Billy Joe Tolliver is in the tournament.'"
Tolliver is one of 10 quarterbacks in the event (eight former, two active) and it's the signal callers that have had the most success since the tournament's inception in 1990. Baseball players have also been making a push in recent years.
"The reason the quarterbacks and the pitchers and the guys that actually throw something for a living, that motion is very similar in golf, even though it's overhand," Rhoden said. "Your body rotates the same way and most quarterbacks and pitchers actually play golf pretty well."
"But the only thing I can chalk it up to is we're the best athletes," Tolliver said. "I don't think there's any question."
Quarterbacks and pitchers might be good at golf, but so is a player - male or female - that has won 89 international tournaments. Sorenstam, the newcomer, is clearly the player to beat.
"She'll see that we've got some players here," Tolliver said. "Even though she hasn't played, you know she's going to show up here ready to play. She's not going to embarrass herself. So I expect her to play really good, but I think we've got some guys here that can, I don't think anybody's going to run away with it."