There aren’t many people on the planet who can overshadow Brett Favre at a sporting event in Wisconsin.
Jack Nicklaus is one of them.
Together, the two Hall of Famers — Nicklaus in golf, Favre in football — turned the back nine at University Ridge Golf Course into an ever-growing mass of awestruck humanity Saturday afternoon. There was a terrific golf tournament going on just ahead of them, but most of what likely was a record one-day crowd at the fourth annual American Family Insurance Championship came to see Nicklaus, the greatest golfer ever and, at 79, a rare sight on a course these days.
Even Favre, the legendary Green Bay Packers quarterback, had a firm grasp of where he stood in the celebrity foursome that was hosted, as usual, by two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North of Madison and also included fun-loving country music star Toby Keith.
“The only way I can describe it is being a priest and serving mass with the Pope,” Favre said. “It’s got to be a thrill to do that. I’m obviously not a golfer. I’m a Sunday golfer, like most of us. This is an extreme honor.”
Fans of the AmFam tournament, one of the shining stars on the PGA Tour Champions circuit, apparently share that sentiment. Even though Madison golfers Jerry Kelly and Steve Stricker were on the leaderboard, spectators were lined up 15 deep on the hill behind the practice range to watch the celebrities warm up and were 40 deep when the group teed off on No. 10.
Tournament director Nate Pokrass said ticket sales were already strong for this year’s event, but really took off four weeks ago when it was announced Nicklaus would make his first golfing appearance in Wisconsin since the 1985 Greater Milwaukee Open and his first in Madison since he played with local amateurs Steve Caravello, Jackie Allen and Ralph “Butch” Schlicht in an exhibition at Odana Hills in 1962, his first year as a professional.
“I don’t remember it, but that’s all right,” Nicklaus said. “It was a beautiful golf course and a great day.”
That line was intended to draw laughter and it did. But it says a great deal about where Nicklaus is today in his life.
“Ask me that 30 years ago and I’d say, ‘Ah, wasn’t much of a golf course, we didn’t have a good time,’” he said. “But I’ve changed.”
For much of a career that included a record 18 major championships among his 73 PGA Tour wins, Nicklaus was businesslike and professional with the media but seldom open and engaging. On Saturday, he was funny and entertaining when he and North met with the media prior to the round, a 30-minute story-telling session that both Nicklaus and the media hated to see end.
Nicklaus didn’t remember the details of his last appearance in the GMO either — he finished second to Jim Thorpe — but his presence bailed out the tournament after North, the home-state hero, won his second U.S. Open and couldn’t play due to Ryder Cup commitments. What Nicklaus did remember about that week was getting mugged in Milwaukee.
“I walked down the street and a guy came up to me and he says, ‘Give me your wallet,’” Nicklaus began. “He stepped in front of me and I said, ‘Get out of my way, get out of here.’ He says, ‘I’m going to shoot you.’ I said, ‘Get out of here,’ and I kept walking. Walked about 10 more steps and he says, ‘Well, if I hadn’t forgotten my gun I would have shot you.’ Absolute truth. That was downtown, that’s all I remember.”
Nicklaus does about 20 speaking engagements a year now and still plays golf, mostly with his sons and grandchildren and in six to eight charity events such as the AmFam. He came to Madison in part because of his long-standing friendships with North, a former rival, and Stricker, the tournament host. Stricker won Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament in 2011 and also played against Nicklaus’ son, Gary, when Stricker was at Illinois and Gary at Ohio State.
“Things like this, what it does, it keeps me involved in the game of golf,” Nicklaus said. “It allows me just to see the guys again, which I don’t see very often. It allows me to have a little bit of fun. Don’t have to keep a score. Last time I actually played a round of golf and putted every putt out was 2005.”
Nicklaus has lost the length off the tee that changed the game much like Tiger Woods did 30 years later, but he can still hit the ball and he’s lost none of his competitiveness. The teams in the entertaining celebrity foursome ended up in a tie after nine holes, but it was Nicklaus, partnered with Favre, who took over down the stretch.
He has become one of golf’s greatest ambassadors in retirement, but when Nicklaus smoked a drive that cut the dogleg on the par-5 16th hole, he conjured up images of the perfect combination of talent, golfing IQ and steely resolve that dominated golf for 25 years and landed him in the World Golf Hall of Fame.
“It’s amazing how when we do these things, the deeper we get, the closer to who can win, he always plays a little bit better,” North said. “Sort of like he’s done for 50 years. He had a great shot at 16, probably 30 yards further than any other drive he hit, and a beautiful shot at 17. It’s fun to see.”
The final attendance numbers haven’t been announced, but about 40,000 fans would roar in agreement.