There are no guarantees a sporting event will live up to its billing.
It’s the risk people take as fans who not only purchase tickets to events but invest their time and emotions as well. Sometimes the experience and the entertainment value match the hype, sometimes they don’t.
The American Family Insurance Championship at University Ridge Golf Course is one event that has lived up to expectations. In fact, it has exceeded them. By a mile.
To call Madison’s PGA Tour Champions event a roaring success during its first three years of existence would be understating the splash it has made on both the senior tour and the Madison community. In five short years, it has gone from an idea to an institution.
With local favorite Steve Stricker as the tournament host and local corporation American Family Insurance as the lead sponsor, the AmFam has become one of the senior tour’s premier tournaments and a fixture on Madison’s summer calendar. It attracts the world’s best 50-and-over golfers to the city, draws crowds that equal the tour’s majors and, most important, generates millions for Madison-area charities.
This is not a win-win situation. It’s more like a win-win-win situation.
Tournament director Nate Pokrass said as much in December when the PGA Tour Champions honored the AmFam with its prestigious President’s Award, which is based on each tournament’s charitable giving, sales, attendance and economic impact.
“Our team’s goal from the beginning,” Pokrass said, “has been to support charitable organizations in our communities by providing an exceptional golf experience for players and fans alike.”
The AmFam has delivered on every count. And with the three-day tournament set to go for the fourth time this weekend at the University of Wisconsin’s revitalized golf course, the experience promises to get better and better.
The 78-player field, which includes Madison residents Stricker and Jerry Kelly, is as strong as ever. The always popular celebrity foursome on Saturday will have Green Bay Packers Hall of Famer Brett Favre and Madison golf legend Andy North, per usual, plus country-music star Toby Keith and, in a major coup, the greatest golfer of them all, 79-year-old Jack Nicklaus. Keith also will headline the Friday night concert at Breese Stevens Field, which quickly sold out more than 10,000 tickets. New this year was the AmFam hosting the UW Carbone Cancer Center’s Race for Research, an annual 5K run that was held Saturday on UW’s Thomas Zimmer Championship Cross Country Course adjacent to University Ridge.
All of which reflects the fundamental secret to the AmFam’s success: In true Madison fashion, it is much more than a golf tournament.
Madisonians have never been satisfied to simply show up, watch a game and head home. Whether it is a major UW sport or one of the professional and amateur baseball and hockey teams that have called the city home, there is usually a party of some sort associated with sporting events in Madison.
The AmFam has followed that script. By thinking outside the box from the start, tournament organizers have gradually built a week-long event that has appeal well beyond the hard-core golf crowd. Backed by the corporate power of American Family, the event has featured highly competitive golf tournaments, celebrities from the sports and entertainment worlds and a typical Madison party atmosphere. Not just at John Daly’s motorhome, either.
Stricker, who, like Kelly, has played in the last two AmFams after turning 50, said the goal from the start was to make it a special event.
“We wanted to make it like a regular (PGA) tour event,” he said. “Not every Champions tour event is that way. We wanted to take care of the players. Then when they came here, they saw the golf course, they stay downtown, they see the crowd support. The amount of people that they’re playing in front of makes it special, very special.”
The best part is the organizers didn’t stop there. They don’t try to reinvent the tournament every year, but they do add an event or two to the menu and make improvements either to the course or the spectator viewing areas.
What they’ve accomplished has been nothing short of remarkable.
The competition: The winners — Kirk Triplett in 2016, Fred Couples in 2017 and Scott McCarron last year — have impressive résumés, especially the eternally popular Couples. More important, there have been low scores (at least one 63) and final-day rallies every year. Not once has the second-round leader won the tournament. McCarron shot a 64, Triplett a 65 and Couples a 66 in come-from-behind victories. Adding Stricker (tied for third both years) and Kelly (tied for 13th in 2017, second alone in 2018) to the field only added to the drama.
The players: The seniors rave about two things — the fan support and the city of Madison. The tournament drew more than 65,000 last year, an impressive number for the Champions tour. The players and their families stay downtown and love the restaurants and the atmosphere around the Square. It didn’t hurt that Stricker, Kelly and North were busy selling the event to their fellow pros, but once the word got out about the crowds and the first-class treatment the players receive, the AmFam has had no trouble assembling a field comparable to a major.
The celebrity foursome: The first year featured Stricker, North, Favre and former UW and Packers lineman Mark Tauscher and it was overrun with fans. Since then, North and Favre have been fixtures in the foursome and have been joined by baseball Hall of Famer Derek Jeter, musician Darius Rucker and golf legend Lee Trevino in what has been an entertaining mix of good and bad golf shots accompanied by plenty of good-natured banter. Having larger-than-life former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal bouncing around the course last year didn’t hurt, either.
The course: The pros weren’t necessarily sold on University Ridge after the first year, but improvements at the course have quieted any criticism and, in fact, elicited praise from the players. First, UW improved the greens. This year, it is renovating the bunkers, the majority of which will be completed in time for the event. Tournament officials have responded to the fans’ preferences as well. This year there will be additional seating around the 14th and 17th greens, spots that have become very popular for spectators.
The proceeds: When the tournament turned a profit of $1,089,500 in its first year, it was twice what organizers and PGA officials anticipated. Last year’s bottom line — $2,067,000 — pushed the three-year total to more than $4.7 million. Distributed by Stricker’s foundation, about half of that total has gone to the American Family children’s Hospital and the rest to more than 185 charities in Wisconsin.
Tournament officials say the attendance and sponsor support has increased each year, which is hard to do in this day and age. Events such as this sometimes lose their steam after the first few years, but the AmFam shows no signs of slowing down.
Indeed, it has the right spokesman, the right title sponsor and the right approach to continue exceeding expectations for years to come.