STATELINE, Nev. -- Iraq War veteran Chad Pfeifer was invited as a feel-good story, but after an impressive first day at the American Century Championship golf tournament Friday, it was apparent he had another mission – to win.
The tournament – squeezed between Lake Tahoe’s shoreline and the south shore casinos – is known more for celebrity watching then birdie watching. NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers, former NBA player Charles Barkley, professional golfer Annika Sorenstam and NBA star Stephen Curry grace the program cover. Pfeifer finished day one of the three-day event with the best score.
As he and made his way from hole to hole, the oft-asked question was: “Who’s Pfeifer?”
“Michelle” was the most frequent guess.
“You know who that guy is? He’s the Army guy who lost his leg,” Eddie Montano explained to his buddy, Jim Deeping, both of Reno.
Like scores of other soldiers, Pfeifer, 32, lost his leg to a roadside bomb. It ripped through the Humvee he was driving on April 11, 2007, Pfeifer said.
As many as 15,000 soldiers have suffered grave injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Kirk Bauer, chief executive of Disabled Sports USA.
Bauer, who lost a leg in Vietnam, said “tremendous progress” has been made in the treatment and rehabilitation of those coming back from the most recent conflicts.
It was months before Pfeifer was well enough to begin rehabbing aggressively. Through rehab, he found his love for golf.
“We were not a golfing family. It’s a rich man’s game,” said his father, Chris Pfeifer, who joined him in Lake Tahoe on Friday. “He was just rehabbing. He wanted to get out of the room.”
Chad Pfeifer said it “took a while” to get used to his prosthetic leg. “Even now, it can be painful,” he said.
Able to devote most of his free time to golf, he now boasts a zero handicap.
“I want to do some professional tournaments and see how far I can go with it,” he said.
For the most part, Pfeifer, who grew up in Idaho but calls Phoenix home, traveled the course in a golf cart in anonymity. Even the combined celebrity of his playing partners – former tennis pro Mardy Fish and actor Alfonso Ribeiro, of “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” fame – did little to attract a following outside of their friends and family. But as the day wore on and Pfeifer’s name moved up the leader board, the gallery started to grow.
The threesome got a taste of the limelight at the 16th hole, which borders the lake. With boats lining the shore covered with bikini-clad women and football-tossing men, the hole takes on a boardwalk feel. After Ribeiro hit a nice shot off the tee and with the crowd chanting “Carlton,” he broke into the awkward dance he made famous, “The Carlton.”
Pfeifer got into the act after scoring a birdie on the hole by pulling up his pants leg to show his artificial leg and joining Ribeiro in his signature dance.
Pfeifer said he’s enjoyed meeting other celebrities, including Barkley and former NFL coach Herman Edwards. But his focus will remain on golf.
“Long-term goal is to get up to the PGA level,” he said. “I’ll keep working as hard as I can and try to achieve it.”
Contact The Bee’s Ed Fletcher, (916) 321-1269.