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Brett Favre-Derek Jeter photo

Brett Favre and Derek Jeter, who played together in last year's celebrity event at the American Family Championship, will be joined this year by Andy North and Lee Trevino.

It’s safe to say when Jack Salzwedel started brainstorming the idea of a professional golf event in Madison with Steve Stricker 10 years ago — or even when the discussion turned serious three or four years ago — the American Family Insurance Championship that we know today was beyond even their hopes and dreams.

Yet, on the eve of the third AmFam Championship at University Ridge Golf Course this week, the PGA Tour Champions event has exceeded everyone’s expectations.

With Stricker serving as player-host, Madison-based American Family Insurance providing financial and promotional muscle as the lead corporate sponsor, the University of Wisconsin’s rejuvenated course as the site and tournament director Nate Pokrass and his staff building the event from the ground up, the tournament has a decidedly Madison feel to it. And Madison has responded.

Boy, has Madison responded.

The first two years were a critical and financial success, drawing crowds large enough to make the event No. 1 in ticket sales for its market size on the over-50 tour and raising more than $2.7 million for charity, with half going to the American Family Children’s Hospital in Madison through Stricker’s foundation and the rest to more than 100 organizations in south-central Wisconsin.

“We couldn’t be happier with how it’s gone the first two years,” Salzwedel, chairman and CEO of American Family Insurance, said recently. “In talking to some of the folks at the PGA — (Champions tour president) Greg McLaughlin and the commissioner (Jay Monahan) and some of those folks — it feels like we’ve hit on a real winning formula with having a player-host who is respected and local and having a corporate sponsor who believes in giving back and then having a fan base that’s just hungry for professional golf.”

Still, the way the tournament has taken off and elevated itself into one both the players and fans thoroughly enjoy has been remarkable. This year’s senior tour has 27 tournaments and the AmFam in many ways has jumped right into the next tier behind the five majors.

“I would have never thought we’d have gotten here this quickly,” said Salzwedel, a DeForest native. “But I think a lot of it has to do with Steve and (his wife) Nicki being a part of it. They’ve helped so much. It’s really been great to see.”

A confluence of events quickly turned the AmFam into a fixture on the Madison sports calendar.

The tournament helped fill a void in Wisconsin created when the regular PGA Tour event in Milwaukee was discontinued in 2009. Stricker and fellow Madison pro Jerry Kelly turning 50 in time to play in last year’s tournament was a major boost. The Saturday celebrity scramble featuring two-time U.S. Open winner Andy North of Madison, Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre and others has drawn huge crowds both years. Adding a Friday night concert at Breese Stevens Field last year took the tournament beyond the golf course to downtown Madison where, with singer Darius Rucker as the headliner, the show became the talk of the town.

The best thing about that combination of good timing and aggressive leadership is that it hasn’t stopped there. In February, the AmFam re-upped with University Ridge for two more years (through 2020) and no one is satisfied with maintaining the present level.

This year’s goal is to improve the fan and player experience at the course. Bleachers will be added in different areas and some vendors will be changed. For the players, the locker room and dining options have been upgraded. After the tournament, work will begin on improving the bunkers and some of the cart and spectator paths in time for next year’s event.

Although the participants seemed wary at the start, the marriage between the AmFam and the UW Athletic Department has been beneficial for both. For instance, the greens were a problem the first year. Once that was fixed, it benefited both the tournament and the Ridge’s attractiveness for regular golfers.

“I think when we originally thought (the relationship) would be really good but we weren’t entirely sure,” Salzwedel said. “We wanted to keep some flexibility to potentially move the tournament if we felt we needed to. In the first couple years, I think the response from the university and from U-Ridge to do some upgrades and change the course the way it needed to be changed ... has been (good). We’ve worked the last couple years with the university and are very happy with the deal that was just signed to extend through 2020. I’d love to see this just be a Madison, Wisconsin, tournament for a long, long time to come. That’s our plan. That’s what we’re hoping for.”

They’re doing more than just hoping, they’re acting on it. This year’s celebrity scramble will feature North, Favre, baseball legend Derek Jeter and golf legend Lee Trevino, who had a great run on the senior tour after winning six majors on the regular PGA Tour. The concert at Breese Stevens will feature REO Speedwagon plus an appearance by basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal, who, according to Salzwedel, “will be the show” with his humorous record-spinning/story-telling act.

“We’re not trying to reinvent as much as we’re looking critically at the things that seem to be working well for our market and for other markets and things that maybe are on the decline, and we’re trying to make the changes that we need to make to the fan experience and the player experience,” Salzwedel said. “It’s more about that than doing something dramatic like moving the venue to Milwaukee or Wisconsin Dells. I think we’ve got a great partner with the university, we’ve got great local charities, we’ve got a great player-host and we’ve got a great team running it. Now it’s, how do we add to certain areas where we think we can really super-charge the thing?”

An ongoing problem is traffic, something that is seldom an issue at Champions tour events. Making traffic and parking easier for spectators is something the AmFam people are working to address.

Otherwise, it’s full-speed ahead for this year’s tournament. Kelly has won three Champions tour events and was the rookie of the year in 2017. Stricker won his first two Champions events this year and continues to compete effectively on the regular PGA Tour. As for the AmFam field, 34 of 2018’s top 36 money winners are scheduled to tee off Friday.

Looking into the future, stars such as Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson are nearing 50, which potentially could make the Champions tour even more attractive at some point.

“I think there’s a great opportunity for this thing over the next five to 10 years to get much bigger than it is today,” Salzwedel said.

That wouldn’t be a surprise, not even, one presumes, to the executives from the PGA Tour.

“I think they looked at Madison and they saw the competition for dollars in Wisconsin and in the Madison area and they thought it would become something that would be really a good solid tournament,” Salzwedel said. “But I think they were very surprised after the first year and then last year after the charity numbers were (finalized). It’s a tribute to Madison and the community and the support. They love their sports, they love Strick, they love Jerry Kelly. They have really far exceeded what I think all of our thoughts were on this.”

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Tom Oates has been part of the Wisconsin State Journal sports department since 1980 and became its editorial voice in 1996, traversing the state and country to bring readers a Madison perspective on the biggest sports stories of the day.