Somewhere in between getting a haircut at the Atwood Barbershop, spending time at the Middleton Guitar Center, delivering a message to the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team, visiting kids at the American Family Children’s Hospital and deejaying at the REO Speedwagon concert, basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal found time to steal the show at the American Family Championship Friday at University Ridge Golf Course.
At one point during the first round of the PGA Tour Champions event, the ever-playful, 7-foot-1 giant took the microphone at the 18th green and used his booming baritone to welcome the threesome of Fred Funk, Jeff Sluman and “fellow LSU alum, my good friend, David ‘The Tiger’ Toms.”
Maybe you heard it.
Steve Stricker did, and he was on the 15th hole.
“Yeah, we heard them,” said Stricker, the Madison resident, tournament host and first-round leader. “We were on 15 tee and Vijay (Singh) actually had to kind of step back and wait for them to be done with whatever he was doing. But we could hear him.”
Actually, it was hard to miss Shaq as he made his rounds at the course, stopping only when a kid wanted an autograph or a photo.
All heads turned as the Shaq circus rolled through, a sign that the man with four NBA championships and five times that many nicknames can still draw a crowd and that the AmFam Championship has managed to outdo itself once again.
In its third year, the most successful new stop on golf’s 50-and-over tour has blended excellent play — this year’s field is one of the year’s best — with well-received ancillary events such as the Friday night concert at Breese Stevens Field and the celebrity foursome with Andy North, Brett Favre and other former sports stars on Saturday to make the AmFam a community-wide event. Shaq’s Madison visit — he’s a longtime spokesman for The General, a subsidiary of American Family Insurance — only added to the fun.
When the AmFam began in 2016, the people of Madison thought they were getting a golf tournament. Three years in, they’re getting much more than that.
“That was the goal,” Stricker said. “To get it to be more than just a golf tournament and to bring more people into what we’re doing and into the game.”
A field that included 19 of top 20 golfers in the Charles Schwab Cup standings spoke for itself Friday, especially after week-long rains created favorable conditions on the course. But the golf is just part of the package at the AmFam, and nothing said that more than Shaq’s towering presence.
Though he lives on a course in Florida, Shaq’s work alongside Charles Barkley on TNT’s popular NBA studio show and his wide variety of outside interests don’t allow much time for golf.
“The only thing I do is like the long drive,” he said. “I like to see if I can hit it past 300 yards. But other than that, I’m not an avid golfer.”
So that’s it, the man who gave himself nicknames like “The Big Aristotle” and “The Big Baryshnikov” should probably give himself a new one: “The Big Bertha.”
But Shaq wasn’t in Madison for a long-drive contest. He was scheduled to deejay for two 20-minute shows between acts at the concert Friday night. Earlier in the day, he gave a sneak preview of what concert-goers could expect.
“We’re just going to have a little fun, get the people dancing, hit them with some white-guy classics,” Shaq said. “Just have a great time.”
Asked what white-guy classics he had in mind, Shaq crooned, “Oooh baby, I love your way, every day,” lyrics from a 1976 hit by Peter Frampton.
All kidding aside, Shaq took a tour of Madison and liked what he saw.
“The people here are very hospitable,” he said. “I had a great time. That’s one of the biggest lakes I’ve ever seen. I was at the hotel and I asked a guy what ocean was that and he said, ‘No, that’s a lake.’ I was like, ‘Big-ass lake.’ ”
One of his stops was the Kohl Center, where he met with coach Greg Gard and the Badgers.
“I just told them to take advantage of this three, four years they’re going to be together,” Shaq said. “Last year they had a lot of injuries, but the coach here has always put together a very solid program. I just wanted to wish them well and just told them that the more they are together, the better their chances are for winning.”
So Shaq delivered on his first visit to Madison, much to the surprise of Toms, who wasn’t expecting a loud welcome on the 18th green from a basketball icon.
“I didn’t think that would ever happen,” Toms said. “But obviously that was pretty cool.”
It is that kind of relaxed approach that has made the Champions tour an easy fit with Madison. The golf is good and so are the events that accompany it.
“It’s fun,” Toms said of Shaq’s appearance. “I think that’s what the Champions Tour is all about is putting on nice events for the communities that we go to and play in. It makes it fun for players. Everybody’s got a little bit of a light attitude already, so I think it just adds to the fun of the event.”
The only golfer who complained was Madison’s Jerry Kelly, who feigned irritation that Shaq didn’t stick around to welcome him at 18.
“Barkley would have stayed for me,” Kelly quipped.
Hmmm, could be an idea for next year.
Contact Tom Oates at firstname.lastname@example.org.