The weather was perfect, the greens were soft and the scores, predictably, were low.
All that paled in comparison, however, to the biggest takeaway from the opening round of the American Family Insurance Championship.
On Friday at University Ridge Golf Course, it was Steve and Jerry’s world. Everyone else was just living in it.
After a one-year wait, Madison’s newest AARP-card candidates — Steve Stricker and Jerry Kelly — made their debuts in the second annual PGA Tour Champions event at U-Ridge and it was hard to tell which one enjoyed it more.
Playing in back-to-back groups, the lifelong rivals and great friends drew such a large, always-moving crowd that other parts of the course seemed hopelessly deserted at times. And as different as they are personally, the laid-back Stricker and feisty Kelly fully appreciated every bit of help they got from their adoring hometown fans.
Indeed, Friday’s round provided a working definition of home-course advantage as both players fed off the crowd right from the start.
“You want to perform and perform well,” said Stricker, who did exactly that with a bogey-free 6-under-par 66 that has him tied for third place. “It’s fun to play here in front of everybody. And when you make a birdie, it’s just that much more special. Great support all day all the way around again here today. It’s been a treat these last two weeks, that’s for sure.”
Stricker, who became eligible for the Champions Tour after turning 50 in February, received similar in-state support during a strong showing at last week’s U.S. Open at Erin Hills Golf Course, about 80 miles from U-Ridge. But while Stricker is still toggling between the PGA Tour and the Champions Tour, Kelly has thrown himself into the senior tour after turning 50 late last year.
His 4-under 68, which included a 32 on the front nine and two par-3s where he came within inches of a hole-in-one, showed he’s lost none of his drive. Especially when he is egged on by a pro-Wisconsin crowd and has the added benefit of playing with his brother-in-law, Madison native Jim Schuman, and Skip Kendall, a long-time PGA Tour player from Fox Point who came up through the ranks with Stricker and Kelly.
“I like it better (at home),” said Kelly, who twice finished second at the defunct Greater Milwaukee Open and always considered it his personal fifth major. “I play off of emotion. I play off of adrenaline. I need that and they gave it to me and it was fun.”
Kelly lost some of his juice on the back nine when he missed an approach he called “one of the easiest shots of the day” and it led to a bogey on 13. Kelly parred out from there and ended in a tie for 13th place. He is five shots off the lead and well within striking distance entering the final two rounds.
“I’ve just got to hit it past the pin and spin it back, (but I) chunked it short and missed an easy up-and-down,” Kelly said. “It stalled me. Then I hit it bad on the next hole and the next hole. So it was not my best (round), but it was the start that I wanted at least and we’ll see if we can take it deep the next couple (days).”
Stricker said he too was running on adrenaline, but for different reasons. His monthlong quest to qualify for the U.S. Open and his uplifting four-day run at Erin Hills took a lot out of him. And since he is doubling as the host for the AmFam Championship, well, let’s just say he’s had a lot on his plate.
It didn’t show Friday. Stricker played very well and easily could have ended the day tied with leader Paul Broadhurst at 9-under. As it is, he’ll be in the final group with Broadhurst and second-place Brian Henninger today.
“It was a good round,” Stricker said. “I threw a couple opportunities away on the way in. I had maybe a 6-footer at 15 that I didn’t convert on and then three-putted No. 16 for par. So it could have been a shot maybe, maybe two better. But all in all, a good start.”
For Stricker, for Kelly and for the tournament. The large crowd that moved slowly and inexorably through the 18-hole layout began with Kelly’s all-Wisconsin group, swelled to its greatest size for the threesome of Stricker, the ever-popular Fred Couples and defending champion Kirk Triplett and continued on to the pairing of Nick Faldo, Colin Montgomerie and Ian Woosnam — three legends from Great Britain making their AmFam debuts — that was two groups behind Stricker’s.
“It’s really cool,” Stricker said. “We had great crowds out there following our group and Jerry is right ahead of us and we’ve got the European group right behind us. So a lot of nice things going on, a lot of people coming out there to support the event, which is nice to see.”
It certainly is. In its first try last year, the AmFam drew the third-best crowds on the Champions Tour, trailing only two of the majors. The crowd looked large again Friday, especially since it was so bunched together.
“It was reminiscent of the old days playing the PGA Tour,” Triplett said. “That part, for me, was very enjoyable. So I’m really happy to be at a tournament where the fans are really supporting it.”
And supporting their own.