Lemieux Invitational a golf bonanza for fans, superstars

By Chris Rodell, Contributor

COLLIER TOWNSHIP, Penn. -- The best tournament you'll ever want to see might not include Tiger, Phil or Sergio, but some every day duffers named Michael, Charles and Mario. Many of the top draws will struggle to break 90, hit a single fairway or roll one in from more than four measly feet.

But spend one day at this decidedly non-professional event and you'll see why the Mellon Mario Lemieux Celebrity Invitational Tournament has a way of making even the biggest guys feel like giddy little kids.

"I don't care how big you are," says the humungously big Charles Barkley, "it's amazing to look around and see the legends -- the greatest to ever play the games -- all in the same place together. I can look around on the putting green and see John Elway talking to Mario Lemieux, and over there's Michael Jordan and Dan Marino talking baseball with Mike Schmidt. Who in the world isn't going to be amazed at seeing that?"

Barkley made the remarks -- and, oh, man, is Sir Charles capable of remarks -- at the 2003 Lemieux. Barkley is guaranteed to be there again this year June 10-13 at the magnificent Club at Nevillewood in Collier Township, south of Pittsburgh. Leah Antkiewicz will see to that.

"Charles has taken a real liking to my 16-year-old daughter and they have a lot of fun," says Jim Antkiewicz, Nevillewood's director of golf. "Everyone knows Charles is funny, but a lot of that image is a facade that sometimes conceals a man with a very big heart. He really cares about people and takes a real interest in making a difference in their lives. And that comes through when you see him talking to my daughter. You should see the looks on her friends' faces when he calls her out of a crowd and starts joking with her."

Such banter is a hallmark of a tournament where laughter reverberates more heartily than the scolding "Shhhh!" of any glaring marshals.

"This is a special event," says Antkiewicz. "Mario makes sure the celebrities he invites are not only the ones people want to see, but also ones that understand what participating in a charity event like this means."

What it means is that superstars like Michael Jordan, Barkley, Dan Marino and a host of other Hall of Famers and Hollywood celebrities are going to treat their pro-am partners cordially, joke with the crowd and gracefully honor lots of autograph requests by smiling children. And they're going to look like they're having a good time while they're doing it.

Maybe because, Antkiewicz says, they are. The charity tournament has raised more than $5 million for the Mario Lemieux Foundation devoted to finding cures for cancer and neonatal problems. It is expected to take in another $1 million this year.

"This is the seventh year for the event," he says. "I grew up watching these guys and I was in awe of many of them. But once you get to know them you realize they are just regular guys anybody would enjoy meeting on a golf course."

Golf has a way of humanizing even superstars, according to Emmitt Smith, who'll again be appearing at this year's tournament.

"I still get butterflies on the first tee when everybody's out watching," Smith said. "I don't care if it's 65,000 fans screaming at the Super Bowl or just 100 standing around the first tee being quiet as a church. The butterflies are the same. It's no different."

Antkiewicz, a 47-year-old Pittsburgh native, says he used to get Godzilla-sized butterflies meeting the players, especially the tournament namesake, a man whose on- and off-ice exploits have left him regarded about the same as the good citizens of Metropolis regard a certain cape-wearing superhero. The only difference between Mario Lemieux and Superman is that the former has never met a Kryptonite capable of crippling him. He's overcome cancer, debilitating back injury and has twice saved the Pittsburgh Penguins franchise he now owns from leaving a town that fiercely loves the team. The Lemieux-led Penguins won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1991-92.

"My first year in the golf business was 1984, the same year Mario was drafted by the Penguins," he says. "I was there in 1988 the night he became the first player in NHL to score five goals every way possible -- empty net, even strength, short-handed, power play and on a penalty shot. Every one knows how he beat cancer and what an inspiration he is. For me to be here and working with him is a thrill. But, I tell you, he's just a regular guy."

Lou Holtz, Jordan, Marino and more than two dozen other top celebrities are already confirmed to play. Past crowd-pleasers have included Matt Lauer, Joe Pesci and Michael Keaton. Antkiewicz says another reason why the field is so strong is because the field they play upon is itself as magnificently muscular as any of the superbly conditioned athletes.

"This is the best course on the celebrity tour," he says. "It's head and shoulders above every other course they play."

The 12-year-old course, a $13 million Jack Nicklaus design, is cut through the sylvan splendors of the rolling countryside. Nicklaus created some fantastic flourishes of his own. Several holes, particularly, the finishing par 4 are cut by waterfalls, lagoons and rocky outcrops waiting to dash mis-struck shots into round-ruining predicaments.

Nevillewood is one of the reasons you'll see so many smiles at the Lemieux. Another is the opportunity to see dreams come true. When one well-mannered boy of about 13 sheepishly apologized for interrupting Jordan to ask for an autograph, the smiling legend bent down, signed and said, "My friend, this is what I do for a living. Thank you!"

The heart-warming sight is as memorable as anything you'll see at a PGA event.

The 2004 Mellon Mario Lemieux Celebrity Invitational, June 10-13, The Club at Nevillewood; 412 323-1919; www.mariolemieux.org. Adults $10, children under 12, $5. The following and other celebrities are scheduled to appear.

Steve Bartkowski -- Former Atlanta Falcon number one draft pick and 1975 Rookie of the Year; he holds the Atlanta Falcons career touchdown and yardage records.

Jerome Bettis -- Pittsburgh Steelers running back.

Kurt Bevacqua -- Former San Diego Padre who hit two home runs in the 1984 World Series.

Chris Chandler-- NFL quarterback who recently signed to play with the St. Louis Rams in the 2004 season.

Vince Coleman -- MLB outfielder who stole 752 bases during his 13-year career.

Chuck Daly -- Hall of Fame coach who led the Detroit Pistons to back-to-back NBA titles in 1989 and 1990.

Al Del Greco -- Former Tennessee Titan place-kicker who helped lead his team into the 2000 Super Bowl.

Mike Eruzione -- Captain of the 1980 gold medal winning U.S. Olympic hockey team.

Rollie Fingers -- Hall of Fame pitcher and Cy Young Award winner, he was the MVP of the 1974 World Series and finished his career third all-time with 341 saves.

Grant Fuhr -- Twenty-year NHL veteran and former six-time NHL All-Star goaltender who helped the Edmonton Oilers to five Stanley Cup championships.

Clark Gillies -- Fourteen-year NHL veteran who was a key member of the New York Islanders' four Stanley Cup teams of the early 1980's.

Roy Green -- Former NFL defensive back and wide receiver.

Lou Holtz -- Former head football coach at Notre Dame and the current coach of the University of South Carolina Gamecocks.

Dan Jansen -- 1994 Olympic Speedskating Gold Medallist in the 1000 meters and the first person ever to break the 36-second mark in the 500 meters.

Davey Johnson -- Former American League Manager of the Year and manager of the 1986 World Series Champion New York Mets.

Michael Jordan -- Former NBA great who won six championships and five MVPs with the Chicago Bulls.

Ivan Lendl -- Winner of eight grand slam tennis titles, including three straight U.S. Opens.

Jerry Lucas -- New York Knick great and NBA Hall-of-Famer who elected to the AllNBA team seven times.

Dan Marino -- Former Miami Dolphins quarterback who holds the NFL all-time records for passing yards, pass attempts, completions, and touchdowns.

Jim McMahon -- Former Chicago Bears All-Pro quarterback who led them to Super Bowl XX, where they beat the New England Patriots.

Stan Mikita -- This Hall of Famer played his entire 22-year career with the Chicago Blackhawks leading them to a Stanley Cup championship in 1961.

John O'Hurley -- Actor best known for his role as J. Peterman on Seinfeld.

David Pelletier -- Won the pairs figure skating gold medal with partner Jamie Salé at the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Digger Phelps -- ESPN college basketball analyst and former Notre Dame coach who is the school's all-time winning coach.

Rick Rhoden -- A former major league pitcher who is a four-time winner and defending champion of the Mellon Mario Lemieux Celebrity Invitational.

Truck Robinson -- A two-time NBA All-Star forward who averaged over 20 points a game for six straight seasons on his way to becoming one of the top scorers in NBA history.

Mark Rypien -- Two-time Pro-Bowl quarterback who was named Super Bowl MVP in 1992, after leading the Washington Redskins to a win in Super Bowl XXVI.

Jamie Sale -- Won the pairs figure skating gold medal with partner David Pelletier at the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Warren Sapp -- Oakland Raiders defensive tackle; helped lead the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a Super Bowl title in 2003.

Emmitt Smith -- The all-time leading rusher in NFL history - he currently plays for the Arizona Cardinals.

Steve Spurrier -- Former collegiate and professional football coach who led the University of Florida Gators to the 1996 National Championship.

Jan Stenerud -- Hall of Fame placekicker who played 19 seasons in the NFL and was selected to the NFL's 75th Anniversary Team.

Lynn Swann -- Hall of Fame wide receiver from the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Joe Theismann -- A two-time NFL Pro-Bowler who led the Washington Redskins to victory in Super Bowl XVII.

Jack Wagner -- Current star of the television series The Bold and the Beautiful and the champion of the 2002 Mellon Mario Lemieux Celebrity Invitational.

Dave Wannstedt-- The Head Coach of the Miami Dolphins, he was named the 1994 NFC Coach of the Year after leading the Chicago Bears to the playoffs with a 9-7 record.

Ed Westfall -- 18-year NHL veteran, he played in two Stanley Cup Finals with Boston and is a four-time All-Star.

Chris RodellChris Rodell, Contributor

Chris Rodell may not be the best golf writer, the most productive or the best informed, but he is the only golf writer who lives on Arnold Palmer Drive one half mile from Latrobe Country Club and The King himself.

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