For a while during the Masters golf tournament in April, it looked like Madison’s Steve Stricker and the American Family Insurance Championship, the inaugural PGA Tour Champions event Stricker is hosting at University Ridge in three weeks, might catch a very lucky break.
After shooting 2-under par on a windy Saturday at Augusta National, 58-year-old Bernhard Langer, a regular on the Champions Tour, was 2 strokes behind leader Jordan Spieth and in contention for his third green jacket entering the final round.
“It’s unbelievable, isn’t it?” Sticker said Tuesday. “During the Masters there, I’m like, ‘Shoot, we could have the Masters champion coming to play in our Champions tournament.’ ”
It didn’t happen, of course. Langer faded on Sunday and finished well off the pace. But Langer has committed to come to Madison for the Champions Tour event that will mark the return of an annual professional golf tournament to Wisconsin for the first time since the PGA Tour’s U.S. Bank Championship ended its run in 2009.
Langer’s expected presence at the AmFam Championship is significant because it is in stark contrast to the USBC, which was called the Greater Milwaukee Open for much of its 42-year existence. For most of those years, loyal Wisconsin-born Tour players such as Stricker, Andy North and Jerry Kelly had to twist their fellow competitors’ arms and call in favors just to get players to come to Milwaukee for an event that suffered from poor dates and small purses.
That won’t be the case when the over-50 crowd comes to Madison for the AmFam Championship. Langer, winner of 27 senior titles in the past eight years, leads the Charles Schwab Cup standings this year and many of the other top Champions Tour players either have committed or could still show up at the Ridge June 24 through 26.
At the tournament’s media day Tuesday, Stricker said very little arm-twisting was needed to produce what is expected to be a star-studded field. Langer, Woody Austin and Duffy Waldorf — the top three in the Schwab Cup standings — are committed. So are No. 5 Billy Andrade, No. 7 Tom Lehman, No. 11 Jeff Maggert, No. 13 Esteban Toledo and No. 20 Kenny Perry.
“It’s been a pretty easy sell,” Stricker said.
Among the things we learned Tuesday were the course will play at right around 7,000 yards for the tournament; parking will be allowed on the nearby cross-country course (weather permitting); and there were so many volunteer workers that a waiting list was started for next year. In the end, however, a golf tournament lives and dies with its field and the AmFam Championship will be no different.
Fortunately, there aren’t as many obstacles for success as there were for the USBC. The $2 million in prize money is tied for 12th-best among the Champions Tour’s 26 events. And because the tournaments are more spaced out than on the PGA Tour, the regulars play, well, more regularly.
North’s schedule as ESPN’s lead golf analyst doesn’t give him time to properly prepare for Champions Tour events, so he won’t be in the field. Neither will Stricker and Kelly, who are both 49 and looking forward to the second AmFam Championship. Their presence will provide a huge boost for next year’s tournament, but this year’s field should stand on its own merit.
“The field is going to be absolutely great,” North said. “With 26 tournaments, we’ve got guys that play every single week. There’s enough off weeks that you can get your schedule geared up to where you can play pretty much every single tournament. That’s one of the good selling points for this Tour. You’ve got the best players there every single week.”
The Champions Tour is structured so there is a week off after every two or three tournaments. Also, it doesn’t play opposite PGA Tour majors and the travel between tournaments is kept to a minimum. The AmFam Championship should benefit from not having a Champions Tour event the week before or after.
“The facts are you get about 28 of the top 30 guys every week, so that’s a pretty good sell when you’re trying to sell a golf tournament,” said Jay Haas, who has won 17 senior titles in 12 years. “I think the slot of this event, with the open week before and after, you’re not going to get guys wanting to take three or four weeks off, so they’ll definitely come here. I think you’ll see a full field here this year and in the future.”
One of the biggest draws on the Champions Tour is Fred Couples. However, Couples hasn’t played since February due to his chronically sore back. Colorful John Daly, who just joined the tour this year, has committed to play, though.
“Because of the number of events there are on the Champions Tour, guys want to play,” Stricker said. “They have those forced breaks, a week or two off, and they get excited to play again. These are guys that played golf their whole careers. We are golfers. That’s what we know and that’s what we’ve learned to do and that’s what we are. So they continue to play and play great golf.”
That’s welcome news for Wisconsin golf fans.