STATELINE, Nev. -- Two years ago, Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce was sitting at a table not far from the shores of Lake Tahoe engrossed in a conversation he never envisioned he'd be a part of.
Justin Timberlake was sitting across from him, regaling Kelce and others with stories from the early days of his legendary musical career.
"I was sitting there as a kid watching this guy's career kind of unfold and just being a fan of him in that regard," Kelce said. "It was so cool just to be around that. As a kid, you don't think that's what could possibly happen."
Kelce's experience with Timberlake was part of a five-day escape that has become a pre-training camp staple for NFL players and coaches at Lake Tahoe for the American Century Celebrity Golf Championship at Edgewood Golf Course.
For all of the 80-plus yearly participants, it's a nice getaway to one of the country's most picturesque settings. For the ever-growing number of current and former NFL players lucky enough (and/or good enough at golf) to get the invitation, it represents a much-needed final chance to relax before the grind of the NFL season.
"This is just so unique," Kelce said. "And that's what really keeps you coming back is situations and stories like that, that are very rare. You don't get that at any other event."
Indeed, the annual tournament is unlike any other in the country. This year's event welcomed 39 NFL players and coaches, including 17 current players. Kelce, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, free-agent wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, Minnesota Vikings cornerback Patrick Peterson and receiver Adam Thielen and Washington quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick were among the active players in this year's field.
The event, which includes a couple of practice rounds and three rounds of tournament play, recently completed its 32nd year. But it's not hard to see why NFL players actively campaign for invitations and anxiously await the opportunity to return.
Heading up the list: The type of cool, sunny weather that can be difficult to find in early July and will be even harder to find at various NFL training camps.
It's one of the primary reasons NBA legend Charles Barkley has become a tournament staple and de facto mayor of Edgewood. There's even a "Charles Barkley Day" in South Lake Tahoe in recognition of Barkley's charitable donations to the area and commitment to the community.
"The first thing I put on my schedule every year is Lake Tahoe," Barkley said. "I have no idea how y'all do it. Lake Tahoe is the only place that's not hot as hell in the middle of the summer. ... I don't care where I'm coming from in the country, it's a heat wave. When I get to Lake Tahoe the weather is always perfect."
OK, so the weather and scenery are a given and so, too, is the opportunity to compete. Kelce said he's "trying to beat somebody" in everything he does.
That's not true for everyone in the field, however. For a self-aware type like New York Giants tight end Kyle Rudolph, it's actually a chance to get away from heated competition and just enjoy himself. That mindset, of course, is partially a product of where Rudolph usually lands on the leaderboard.
"My competing is in between the lines, not in between the ropes," Rudolph said. "It's easy for someone who is going to be at the bottom, probably 10 or so, on the leaderboard to say that, but I'm just out here to have a good time. ... Now certainly if I was competing in the top 10, I'd be a little bit more competitive."
The yearly Tahoe sojourn also offers a chance for unlikely relationships to form. Kelce has forged friendships with the likes of Timberlake and actor/comedian/Chiefs fan Rob Riggle, who is also a tournament mainstay. Rudolph has developed a friendship with comedian Larry the Cable Guy, bonding over their similar approach to golf.
"Who can say no to the opportunity to be around people who have gotten to where they've gotten to in their careers?" Buffalo Bills coach Sean McDermott said. "I just like being around good people. I'm blessed to bring my family out here for the first time and enjoy the nice weather, the nice company."
In the couple of days before this year's tournament, improbable scenes played out all over the place.
During a post-practice-round range session, boxer Canelo Alvarez, Fitzgerald and Hall of Fame defensive end Michael Strahan ended up in an impromptu driving competition. Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young and former All-Pro defensive lineman Justin Tuck discussed the ever-relatable topic of how difficult it is to translate success on the range to the actual golf course.
Meanwhile, on the practice green, NBA star Stephen Curry kept a large group of fans waiting for autographs as he went through an elaborate, roughly hourlong putting routine. The next day, Curry found himself shadow boxing Alvarez on the ninth hole for a second consecutive year. As one might expect, it didn't go so well for Curry.
"I have to really get better, obviously," Curry said. "I need to use my reach and my height a little bit. I kind of got down and went right into his sweet spot. One of our good friends is an amateur boxer. So, he sent me a text late last night. He watched the video, analyzed it. He told me everything I did wrong. So, I have a full year to get right."
Things tend to turn a bit more serious when the actual tournament begins. But not much more, which was easy to see when following the trio of Los Angeles Rams offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth, San Francisco 49ers kicker Robbie Gould and former Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams for nine holes on the opening Friday.
As Williams teed off on No. 11, a fan yelled "Bills Mafia" at Williams just before he lined up his shot. Instead of shouting down the fan, Williams responded with a hearty "Yeah, baby!" As Gould walked between holes, a fan in an Arizona Cardinals T-shirt asked for an autograph. Gould was sure to let the fan know he needed to "get a better shirt" as he happily obliged the request.
On the 16th hole, a long par 5 that offers an ideal Lake Tahoe backdrop, Williams smoked a drive right down the middle only to have it stopped midflight by a wickedly placed tree in the middle of the fairway. To no one in particular, a laughing Williams said, "I hit that tree like every year. I got 10 grand for someone with a chainsaw."
Andrew Whitworth and Kyle Williams taking in the full party experience of No. 17 at the American Century Championship in Tahoe. pic.twitter.com/dXmfNNZAfw— Nick Wagoner (@nwagoner) July 21, 2021
The fun really begins when players get to the par-3 17th, the signature hole of the tournament that offers the type of party atmosphere found elsewhere only at No. 16 at the Waste Management Open in Phoenix. The hole sits along the shore of Lake Tahoe with music blaring and fans lined up on both sides.
Additional spectators watch the proceedings from their boats, and some even get involved. One group of fans threw footballs and markers on to the fairway in front of Williams and Whitworth, both of whom scooped up the balls, signed them and tossed them back to the fans. As he passed through on Saturday, Rodgers threw a perfect pass from the tee box to fans on a boat more than 50 yards away.
It's the one hole on the course that every player, no matter how competitive, wants to play well.
"Obviously, that's the biggest pressure hole," Rudolph said. "You've got everybody over there, you want to hit a good shot."
Participants view the tournament as an ideal situation to spend time with family and close friends. Rudolph's college roommate served as his caddy, Fitzpatrick's son Brady was on his bag and 49ers right tackle Mike McGlinchey -- at 6-foot-8 and 310 pounds -- set a tournament record for largest caddy by stepping in for Gould's dad.
Even a 6.0 earthquake originating nearby Thursday and hotter than normal temperatures weren't enough to ruin the mood, as a limited number of fans were able to return to watch in person after no fans were allowed in 2020 because of the pandemic. This year, the tournament once again awarded $600,000 in prize money, all of which goes to various charities.
Soon enough, the lighthearted jabs and friendly trash talk will give way to those long, hot training camp days.
"This is the last hurrah," Fitzgerald said. "That's exactly how you look at it. This is the last time your family gets together, and you get to do something fun. It's a great event, and you can't beat the camaraderie of the guys."