MADISON – Red-faced, Steve Stricker crossed his arms but he wasn’t going to hold back.
Tears came as he reflected on the 15-year journey until late Sunday afternoon when he received the American Family Insurance Championship trophy.
“Look where we are today,” he said, his voice cracking. “It’s really cool.”
The Edgerton native and Madison resident held up superbly in spring conditions at University Ridge Golf Course, carding a 3-under 69 to finish the PGA Tour Champions event with a new 18-under 198 record for three rounds. Kirk Triplett, the tournament’s first winner in 2016, held the previous mark at under 17.
On the last, Stricker rolled in a par putt and then hugged his wife, Nicki tightly.
“I’m just really happy for him,” said Jerry Kelly, who waited until after his turn to see his friend finish the job behind the 18e Green. “As long as he can get rid of it and never do it again, you know? No, I’m really happy for him. What a great family and what they have done for this tournament. Even for my tournament. It’s pretty awesome to have a tournament like this in his hometown. It’s definitely because of Steve. He definitely deserves it.
Nicki Stricker caddyed for her husband throughout the week, and the couple celebrated with a signature handshake by heading to the 18e green, then with hugs with their daughters Bobbi and Izzi.
“It’s very special,” Steve Stricker said of being close to his family. “Any time I have the opportunity to win a golf tournament and they are here with me, it’s very special. Nicki worked a lot on the bag. We all wanted me to win this event and ultimately c has arrived. It’s a special day for us.
Kelly, Stricker and Skip Kendall competed for decades and at one point or another all felt the pressure of trying to win the PGA Tour’s Greater Milwaukee Open in the late 1990s and early 1990s. 2000. For more than a decade, the trio (along with Appleton’s JP Hayes) combined for a dozen top-10 finishes on their “home course”, while Kelly and Stricker each finished second in the GMO.
Kendall acknowledged they couldn’t help but feel the pressure to win such an event, and Kelly finally broke through on a course in Wisconsin when he won the 2019 and 2021 AmFam Championships.
Although Kendall finished well ahead of Stricker on Sunday, the outcome seemed predestined.
“How can you…you can’t write a better script than that,” Kendall said.
And Stricker acknowledged pulling this one off was tough as he struggled with his emotions throughout.
“It was very special,” he said. “I had a few opportunities the first six years and I didn’t finish the job on Sunday. Today was a difficult day. Not just with the weather, but just battling my nerves and my emotions trying to win a golf tournament, especially here in Madison. So yeah, this one is pretty cute. I held it together today. It was a day that could have come off quite easily just because the conditions were so difficult. Held together, so proud of this part and yeah, it’s kind of nice to come out on top.
This is Stricker’s fourth PGA Tour Champions victory this season.
Although he would win comfortably by five shots, Stricker saw a challenger emerge in a hard-charging Colin Montgomerie. Playing three groups ahead of Stricker, the Scot also thrived in the conditions and set the tone as he hit 14 under for the tournament through 11 holes.
But, he went 3-over in the stretch to lose ground. Montgomerie would finish the day with a 3-under 69 to finish tied for fourth.
As for Stricker, his day started as badly as the weather.
Deep breaths wafted through the air in the early afternoon as temperatures dropped over 30 degrees after the first two sunny laps. The wind stiffened the flags and chilled the air, instead of providing a welcome respite from the heat. A gentle rain made the green of the golf course stand out.
Stricker donned an all-black rain suit as he departed as co-leader of his tournament, alongside Paul Broadhurst and first-round leader Justin Leonard.
Stricker was never shy about sharing his feelings and he knew he would be nervous. He had not registered a bogey in 29 consecutive holes in the first two rounds, but would drop a shot on his first hole. But he birdied no. 2 to return to under 15 and settle down.
“Getting that birdie back on No. 2 right away is a big deal,” he said. “I really wasn’t flustered today, surprisingly. I’ve been in other years and then today I think I was so determined to do it that I kept putting my head down. #10 and came back with another birdie at 11. So every time I bogeyed, I bounced back and that kind of helped stabilize the ship and keep it going.
After five straight pars, Stricker closed his front nine with consecutive birdies at no. 8 and no. 9 to give himself a four-shot cushion on Montgomerie.
As Montgomerie disappeared, no one else was able to mount a charge.
Leonard, who broke a tournament record 62 in the first round, lost momentum early by going 3-over in his first five holes and carded a 2-over 74 to finish tied for fourth. Broadhurst fell by the wayside with two bogeys on the no. 7 and no. 8. He finished with a 74 to finish tied for second with Steven Alker at 13 under for the tournament.
The top 10 was completed by Joe Durant, Stephen Ames, Marco Dawson, Steve Flesch and Ernie Els.
Jerry Kelly couldn’t close the gap
The ever honest Kelly started the tournament saying he defended himself during the practice rounds by not acknowledging the score could be low. He followed it up with an even par 72 on Friday, after which he said “I sucked”.
Despite a 5-under 67 on Saturday in which he netted seven birdies, Kelly said he refused to smile – but hoped the weather would deteriorate to help his closing argument and ‘save face’.
While the weather cooperated, Kelly’s game did not. He shot a respectable 2-under 70 to climb to a tie for 11th, but he felt he was leaving more opportunities on the course.
“Oh, no, still not happy with where I finished,” he said. “I left probably five putts short.
“It was really disappointing. I lined it up, worked really hard at the start for the pars, then got some birdies and was like okay, here we go, we got the nine the easiest and I can get something out of it. And then, yeah, I just stalled. I hit it pretty close, I just didn’t make the putts. I’m tired. My legs are gassed. Three weeks in a row, major, this week, extra Monday, I’m not as strong as Steve.
Rounding out the local finishers, Kendall shot a par 72 and was 1 under for the tournament. Madison’s Mario Tiziani had a 1 under 69 to also finish 1 under for the tournament.
Our subscribers make this reporting possible. Please consider supporting local journalism by subscribing to Journal Sentinel at jsonline.com/deal.
DOWNLOAD THE APP: Get the latest news, sports and more
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Stricker Wins AmFam Championship in Madison: “This One’s Pretty Cute”