Former Major League pitcher Mark Mulder has pretty much owned the American Century Championship over the past decade, winning three and nearly a fourth in 2018, a few Stableford points behind first-time champ Tony Romo.
When the 30th edition of the popular tournament — which is known as the golfing celebrity set’s version of the Masters — tees off July 12-14 at Edgewood Tahoe, Mulder will be at most a 7-2 favorite. He’ll also be packing a game that’s in far better shape than the one he showed up with last year.
“I’ll be ready for this year’s tournament. I wasn’t ready last year. I was playing awful,” he said during a June press conference in Edgewood’s scenic North Room, which overlooks the 18th green and the deep azure blue of Tahoe itself just to its left. “My game is a lot better.”
In three decades of covering the American Century and watching everyone from seven-time champ Rick Rhoden to NFL quarterbacks like Mark Rypien, Billy Joe Tolliver and Romo make their mark in the winner’s circle, I find Mulder to be the closest to a Tour player in temperament, game awareness and confidence. He’s one of just a few people out of the event’s 80-odd competitors with a legit shot at the trophy, and he knows it.
“My game’s good. I’m not a big practice guy. The thirty balls I hit before I play is the extent of my practice. But I’m lucky enough that I do play a handful of times each week. I’m playing a lot more with my kids, they’re getting into it a little bit.
“My odds being what they are, you might want to head over and place a bet,” he continued, drawing laughs. “I would advise it, just between you and me. But then again, every player should say the same thing.”
A feel player through and through — even when he was hurling fastballs for the St. Louis Cardinals and Oakland A’s in a career cut short by shoulder injury — Mulder finally decided to take a couple lessons after last year’s debacle, even though I still had a chance to win.
“My game was not great when I came in for the tournament last year. Prior to the three lessons that I took last summer, I had never taken a lesson in my life. I was always a feel guy. That’s how I pitched, that’s how I played golf. I just figured I could figure it out on my own.”
Still, something had snuck into his tee game, and he couldn’t spot what it was.
“Coming into this tournament, I was hitting my driver awful, and couldn’t figure out why. I didn’t want to take a lesson right before the tournament, so I just went with it, and paid for it. In the last round I pulled one into the trees on 16, over that bunker, and ultimately I made bogey or double.
“So I took a lesson, and it was so stupid — I was standing too straight up [at address]. The guy I took a lesson with, at the course I’m at in Arizona, put me next to [a video of] Ernie Els, because I’m 6-6 and Ernie is 6-3 or 6-4. So at least it game me something to compare to, so I could see the difference. Just seeing that, I bent over more for the first swing, hit one good and went, ‘Oh, all right, I’m done.’ That was the extent of it. It wasn’t anything serious.”
Now he’s back and ready to blast them long and straight on Edgewood’s pristine mountain fairways, which ask for a power fade on most holes and a flat-out full fade on others. In other words, a superstar like Dustin Johnson would feel at home here, but Mulder is, at least in terms of confidence, the next best thing.
“In my mind, when I’m out there, I feel like my swing looks like a PGA Tour player, but when I see it on video, I cringe,” he said, laughing at himself this time. “But that’s OK, because all I’m trying to do is repeat MY swing. I don’t have to have a Tour swing to go be a decent player, especially since I’m not trying to be a PGA Tour player. So, I just kind of try to make the best of what I have going, and find a way to get the ball in the hole in less strokes than you. That’s my goal.”
Good advice for any golfer — and pretty much what any teaching pro worth his or salt preaches day in, day out: Master your own move and the scoring will take care of itself.
But what really pushes Mulder to his winning ways is the hole he needs to fill, the one he no longer can find on the mound.
“For me it’s everything. I don’t get that anymore [from baseball]. After you spend your whole life competing, all of a sudden, that competition is gone. This tournament fills that void for me. It allows me to compete, have that nervous energy — everything that comes along with being uncomfortable. Although I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable in this tournament over the years, because I’ve had some success. I’m getting better on blocking everything out and focusing on what I’m doing.”
It took some work to beat back the jitters so many American Century players describe, including playoff-hardened football players who get weak in the knees when trying to find the fairway in front of hundreds of fans.
“The first few years I played in this thing, there are thoughts that would go through my head … all of a sudden, Dottie Pepper would show up with a camera right behind me, and I’d think, ‘they’re gonna see me shank this.’ I never think about that stuff when I’m playing with my friends, but here, I did. That has all changed; I might still have those thoughts, but I don’t worry about it anymore.”
Mulder has watched the American Century grow exponentially even over the eight or nine years he’s made the Tahoe trek, crediting mega-stars like Steph Curry and Justin Timberlake for taking it to a new level (back in the day, this was Michael Jordan’s domain). Watching how they and others interact with a crowd that’s there less for the golf and more for the sheer star wattage, yet still treating it as a serious golf tournament, has helped him become a dominant force.
“It just seems to get better and better every year. My first few years, I was paired a time or two with Billy Joe Tolliver, and I would see him say hi to every single volunteer out on the course. He would walk up and hug every single one of them, and they loved it.
“The majority of athletes who come to this tournament are the same way. There’s access to a lot of us; the big-name guys, not so much, because there’s so many people around. For the most part, on the pro-am days, you’re walking right next to us from green to tee. You don’t get that a lot of other places. You look at this location — you can’t just take this tournament and put it somewhere else, and recreate it. This setting makes for what it is, and why so many people show up, and why it’s so great. The work that goes into it — it’s incredible.
Still, Mulder can’t quite name the inner quality that allows him to flip the switch from the tournament’s fun atmosphere back to competitive mindset.
“I don’t know. I just do. When I was a pitcher, when I gave up a homer, I had to turn the page. If I lost a game, I couldn’t sit there and dwell on it for five days, I had to focus on the next game. If I hit a bad shot in the trees, there’s nothing I can do about it except to go find it, and see if I can make it better. It’s simple — it’s one shot, and the minute I’m done with that shot.
Again, sage advice for any golfer. As are the following words.
“The majority of guys are here to have fun. Don’t get me wrong — a few of us want to win, but I’m gonna have fun while I’m winning.”
One guy who never fails to have fun, even if his swing is among the most brutal to witness in person or on TV, is Charles Barkley. If Mulder were to give Charles Barkley a lesson, what would they work on?
“I think we’re beyond that,” Mulder said, to the biggest laughs yet. I know he’s tried to play left-handed, cross-handed, one-handed. But he’s such a caring person, he’s so outgoing, that I almost think it hurts him — he wants so badly to play better, he almost cares too much.
“If he cared less, I wonder if it could help. But I doubt it.”