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Madison owns its pieces of professional golf lore, from Walter Hagen playing the (then 18-hole) Monona Golf Course in the 1930s to Arnold Palmer and Gary Player touring Odana Hills in 1961. Palmer shot 65 that August day, and took home the winner’s share of the $4,000 purse. A spectator ticket was $3.
Most notably, the city in the past four decades has produced a foursome of extraordinary professional golfers: Andy North, Sherri Steinhauer, Jerry Kelly and Steve Stricker. Steve grew up in Edgerton, but he lives here now, so I’m claiming him on behalf of the city.
Their golf feats are remarkable—multiple major championships for North and Steinhauer, distinguished PGA Tour careers for Kelly and Stricker—but anyone who has met them will tell you they’re just as accomplished as human beings. Stricker won Golf Digest’s first “nicest guy on the PGA Tour” award and didn’t win it this year only because he’s now over 50 and not eligible.
But hitting 50 means Stricker is eligible to play in this week’s American Family Insurance Championship, the PGA Tour Champions event that begins Friday at University Ridge.
Stricker has a professional association with American Family and served as host of the inaugural event last year. But having him in the field, along with Kelly, who also recently hit the magic number for senior tour entrance, makes this week’s tournament special.
So many things are aligning. In fact, we may be in for a classic.
Beyond the Madison guys, the field of competitors is terrific, headed by fan favorite Fred Couples, the former Masters champion who doesn’t play much these days because of a balky back.
The international contingent includes six-time major champion Nick Faldo, multiple major winner Vijay Singh, former Masters champ Ian Woosnam and World Golf Hall of Fame member Colin Montgomerie.
For some of us, the top international draw is what the Spaniard magazine headline writers like to call “the most interesting man in golf,” after the Dos Equis “most interesting man” ad campaign.
Miguel Ángel Jiménez, with his pirate’s scruff and ponytail, a cigar in one hand and a glass of Rioja wine in the other, is threatening to do the impossible: Make senior golf cool.
“I love golf like I love life,” Jiménez told Golf.com a couple of years ago. “I enjoy a good meal. A good bottle of wine. Being in the company of my friends and my family… Life is not being born and dying. It’s about what happens in between. This is what I am doing: living, playing golf, enjoying all that surrounds it.”
None of the foreign-born players mentioned above competed in last year’s American Family tournament. Their presence most likely means that word has circulated that in its first year the tournament was well run, the fans were appreciative, and the host golf course was a good test without being punishing.
Having Stricker as host doesn’t hurt, either.
It was built and they came
Madison golf fans with a sense of history will remember that getting the University Ridge course built was almost as big a battle as getting the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired Monona Terrace constructed.
UW-Madison was leery because of the cost, but even when private funds were raised, the project kept getting delayed. I did a Madison Magazine story about it in the early 1980s that was headlined “The case of the missing golf course.”
It was finally built and opened in 1991. Former UW golf coach John Jamieson deserves a lot of credit for keeping the development alive. His citation in the Athletic Department Hall of Fame notes that “for more than 36 years he worked tirelessly on every phase of the UW-Madison golf course project.”
Golf is generally too fickle for something like this to happen, but wouldn’t it be fitting if either Stricker or Kelly was holding the trophy on Sunday?
What fine careers they’ve had. I remember interviewing Steve and his wife Nicki in the lounge at Cherokee Country Club for a Madison Magazine cover story in 1995. At the time, I thought Steve might be too nice a guy to reach the top of his profession. Glad to have been wrong about that.
My Kelly story is even more personal. In September 2002, I was with my 10-year-old son on the putting green at Hawks Landing one evening at dusk when Kelly showed up. Spotting the young boy, Kelly immediately challenged him to a four-hole putting contest. The weekend before, Jerry had been in the last group with Tiger Woods at a tournament in Ireland.
My son may have forgotten that night on the putting green, but I haven’t. (Actually, my son hasn’t either.)
Good crowds are expected this weekend, and the American Family folks asked me to remind people to leave enough time and be patient with the traffic situation getting into and out of the course.
In other words, take your cue from the “most interesting man in golf” and relax.
Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.