Nate Pokrass can picture it all now.
As he gazes out the windows of the pro shop at the University Ridge Golf Course, Pokrass doesn’t see the bleak, snow-covered landscape. Instead, his vision is of hospitality tents, immaculate fairways and greens, and grandstands and natural amphitheaters filled with golf fans.
Now it’s his job to make sure that vision becomes reality when University Ridge hosts the inaugural American Family Insurance Championship June 24-26. The PGA Champions Tour event is arguably the biggest golf event in Madison history, and as tournament director it’s up to Pokrass to see that everything comes off without a bogey.
“What’s eye-opening is we have to create a stadium for one week,” said Pokrass, who’s spent 20 years in business development and fundraising for college athletics, including 10 years at the University of Wisconsin. “Every little aspect, all the amenities you expect when you go to a Badger football or basketball game, we’re creating that for one week.
“So we have to build that added infrastructure here. That’s the eye-opening part. We’re building a sports stadium for one week and then tearing it down. That’s the unique thing about the PGA Tour.”
Of course, Pokrass doesn’t have to pull off that feat on his own.
As the tournament nears, he’ll be able to lean on the expertise of the PGA Tour and its operations team at HNS Sports Group, for whom this traveling road show is a weekly exercise.
He also has his own team, which includes tournament coordinators Katie Elliott and Lindsay Koth and volunteer coordinator Gail Perla, and the institutional support of title sponsor American Family Insurance.
Then there’s the presence of Steve Stricker, the Edgerton native and Madison resident with 12 PGA Tour wins on his resume, who is involved through his partnership with American Family in a charitable foundation that will share the proceeds from the tournament along with American Family Children’s Hospital.
“Steve is actively involved, beyond just having his name on the foundation and his silhouette on the logo,” Pokrass said. “He’s actively visiting with sponsors and volunteers and with the agronomy team here at University Ridge.
“It helps separate our event to have that local hometown guy who’s just getting ready to join that tour.”
Stricker, 49, is one year away from being eligible to play in the tournament, as is Madison’s other tour member, Jerry Kelly. Kelly also will have a presence with the tournament and the surrounding events of the week, as will the city’s other two most prominent pros, Andy North and Sherri Steinhauer.
With Stricker and Kelly serving as ambassadors for the event among their fellow pros, Pokrass said the response from players has been enthusiastic. He expects nearly all of the top names of the Champions Tour to participate in the 54-hole tournament with a $2 million purse.
So far, roughly 50 players have made tentative commitments to be among the 81-player field. Among those committed are former British Open champion Mark Calcavecchia; the first two winners on this year’s tour, Duffy Waldorf and Esteban Toledo; two of the top five on last year’s money list, Joe Durant and Billy Andrade; and former champions of the now-defunct Greater Milwaukee Open/U.S. Bank Open, Corey Pavin, Kenny Perry, Jeff Sluman and Loren Roberts.
Pokrass is confident that the golfers will enjoy the experience of playing University Ridge, which was lengthened to 7,259 yards in 2012.
“I think this course will provide both a challenge and good scoring,” he said. “The front and the back nines are different so you’ll get to see a different style of game playing.
“They don’t necessarily put a number to it, but that middle ground is the intent. Fans want to see birdies, but at the same time you want to make sure the players are challenged. We want them to enjoy their experience and coming back. We don’t want it so hard they’re all shooting mid-70s.”
Equally important to Pokrass and tournament organizers is to make sure the fans also have an enjoyable experience. The trickiest part, he knows, will be getting the estimated crowds of 15,000 or so fans to the course in a timely fashion.
“Traffic clearly is a challenge,” he said. “We recognize that. The corner of M and PD is what it is.”
The plan is to use the adjacent Zimmer cross country course area for parking, which should be large enough to handle all the spectators. Arrangements have been made with surrounding businesses to provide parking in case wet weather makes the grounds too muddy.
“We will have contingency plans to handle it all,” Pokrass said. “We’re dreaming of sunny and 70s, but we’ll have alternate plans to manage things if the weather turns.”
Parking will be free. Admission will be $25 for adults, $20 for ages 50 and up, with kids 15 and under free. A three-day pass will be available for $60.
“Our intent is to make it family-friendly pricing,” Pokrass said.
The PGA Tour estimates that the tournament will have an economic impact of $15 million to $20 million on the Madison area.
That would place it somewhere behind the World Dairy Expo ($25 million) and ahead of the WIAA boys state basketball tournament at the Kohl Center ($6 million) and the Ironman Wisconsin triathlon ($4.3 million) among the area’s top annual revenue-generators, according to the Greater Madison Area Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.
The tournament is expected to generate at least $500,000 for charity with that figure growing to the $1 million range in succeeding years as the event becomes more established.
American Family is committed for three years as the title sponsor and company spokesman Ken Muth expects the tournament to become a regular part of Madison’s sports scene.
“This has all the potential to be a showcase event,” Muth said. “I think everybody involved is committed to making it that.”
The one missing element right now is something that only time can provide.
“Once we start seeing green grass,” Pokrass said, “that should bring more excitement to it.”