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Michael Jordan doesn’t tear up golf course, but fans enjoy watching him try

Michael Jordan takes mob scene surrounding his appearance American Century Championship celebrity golf tourney. | Sean Jensen~Sun-Times

Michael Jordan takes in the mob scene surrounding his appearance in the American Century Championship celebrity golf tourney. | Sean Jensen~Sun-Times

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Updated: August 22, 2012 6:17AM

STATELINE, Nev. — American Century Championship officials didn’t know when — or even if — to expect the circus.

There was a rumor Wednesday night that Michael Jordan might not show up for the popular celebrity golf tournament, which he had played in 16 of the previous 22 times, and he didn’t participate in the pro-am Thursday, as usual.

But 45 minutes before his tee time Friday morning, Jordan generated a buzz as only he can when he strode to the driving range in his custom-branded golf outfit. He last dribbled a basketball on an NBA court in 2003, yet, at age 49, Jordan still is the ultimate ringleader.

Fans hustled toward him with jerseys, magazines and pieces of paper in tow, and the other celebrities all made a point to stop and say hello, even interrupting him during his practice session.

The entourage was surprisingly small, just his fiancée, Yvette Prieto, and another friend, but the Jordan Rules have taken on a different tenor. Someone in a cart shuttled drinks to him in an insulated cup several times during the round, and he was escorted around the course by two sheriffs.

Even NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin presumed Jordan pulled some strings to get him an invite.

“Michael suggested it,” Hamlin said of his first invitation to the event. “Whatever Michael says goes.”

To capture the madness, I walked all 18 holes at Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course, inside the ropes, with Jordan’s group, which included Hamlin and former baseball star Vince Coleman.

Here are some highlights and anecdotes:

◆ In the first-tee box, after his introduction, Jordan gets a loud roar from the fans in the box. He’s friends with both of his playing partners. Coleman, in fact, is wearing the same purple shirt and golf shoes as Jordan, even though the branded gear isn’t available for purchase anywhere. As for Hamlin, he initially met Jordan because he’s a Charlotte Bobcats season-ticket holder — apparently the abysmal club’s only one.

◆ After a par, the next two holes are a gong show for Jordan. His drive on the par-4 second settles behind a tree. His next shot hits a branch, advancing just four yards, then his pitch settles behind another pine tree left and short of the green. Eventually, he cards a double bogey. The third — a par-5 — isn’t much better, with a worm-burner drive that leaves him 360 yards from the hole. He scrambles, though, for a bogey.

◆ Smoking a cigar, which he puffs away at during his putts, Jordan still interacts with fans, volunteers and tournament officials. Between holes, Jordan is swarmed by kids and others, who use their split second with him to mention Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods… and Space Jam.

◆ After a forgettable front nine — despite the generous Stableford scoring system, he doesn’t muster a single point — Jordan pars the 10th hole to earn a point, then heads to the 11th tee, which is backed up because it’s a par-4 that’s reachable on the drive. While waiting, on a practice swing, ­Coleman clocks an official in the left temple, drawing blood. After he learns the official is fine, Jordan starts to razz his friend. “Sue him!” he tells the official.

◆ Other than a short lunch break, Prieto walked most of the course with him. As they approached the famed 17th green, one male fan yelled, “Sell that thing on eBay,” referring to her massive engagement ring. Prieto couldn’t help but laugh and give him the thumbs up.

◆ Jordan, whose best finish in the event is ninth, isn’t having a memorable round. But, on the 18th tee box, he leans over to Coleman and says, “I’m up one. Reach into those pockets.”

◆ After chunking a flop shot, Jordan settles for par on the 18th, giving him eight points for the round. Although Coleman has two more points, Jordan won their wager. “I have to give him almost $2 million,” Coleman said jokingly. “We’ll play again tomorrow.”

Jordan declined comment after the round, but Hamlin said he was rattled by the gallery, which sometimes reached close to 100 people, tracking them.

Jordan told Hamlin last week when they played together that this is the most nervous he gets anymore, playing at the American Century tournament.

But Hamlin didn’t really understand, until Friday, when his hands were sweating on the opening tee box. Then, on the 17th hole, where fans crowd it from all angles, including the beach, Hamlin double-bogeyed.

“We play all the time, and it’s no big deal,” Hamlin said. “But out here, you’re so vulnerable. Everyone is staring at you, and you know they’re staring at you, and you’re hoping not to make a fool of yourself.”

Or, more appropriately, end up a clown in Jordan’s ongoing circus.

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