MADISON – Mario Tiziani reported for work the other day at University Ridge Golf Course and was directed toward the caddies’ lounge.
“I said, ‘Actually, I’m going this way this week,’” Tiziani said.
He pointed toward the players’ locker room. Steve Stricker’s brother-in-law and part-time caddie won’t have a golf bag slung over his shoulder at the American Family Insurance Championship, which gets underway Friday. He’ll be reaching into his own bag and hoping to pull out some magic.
Tiziani, 50, is in the 81-player field on a sponsor’s exemption. He made his return to competitive golf last week, after a hiatus of at least 10 years, and won the Minnesota Senior Open. This is a different deal. It’s a PGA Tour Champions event. Fred Couples is in the field. Ernie Els. Retief Goosen. Mike Weir.
“I’m stressed, for sure,” he said Thursday. “I want to compete. I want to see what I have. I haven’t played a lot of competitive golf, so (I’ll) be thrown into the fire, I guess.”
This should be a feel-good story about a local kid who did some nice things years ago and is coming home to play on his home course, before friends and family. But Tiziani has pride, and a competitor’s heart. He won’t be happy shooting 75s and waving to the gallery.
“I’m trying to control me,” he said. “I’m nervous already. I usually feel better once I’m inside the ropes, but leading up to it, (I’m) anxious, mostly because I care and I want to perform, so I know that’s why I feel the way I feel. I have high expectations for myself. As long as I can take care of me and not get caught up in the moment, I think I’ll be fine. But that’s the wild card.”
In another lifetime, Tiziani tried to follow in the footsteps of Stricker and fellow Madisonian Jerry Kelly, who became multiple winners on the PGA Tour and are still playing at a high level, Stricker splitting his time between the young gun/old guy tours and Kelly – the defending champion here – making yet another run at the Charles Schwab Cup on the PGA Tour Champions.
Tiziani was on that path, too, starring on the Madison East High School team and playing for his father, Dennis Tiziani, then the men’s and women’s golf coach at the University of Wisconsin. Mario was Big Ten freshman of the year. He played on the first Badgers team to qualify for the NCAA tournament. He turned pro and won the Wisconsin State Open.
Ultimately, he qualified for the PGA Tour on his 13th attempt, but lasted just one year. In total, he played in 38 PGA Tour events, 75 Korn Ferry Tour events and 16 tournaments on the Mackenzie Tour-PGA Tour Canada. He had plenty of game. Sometimes, the putter held him back. Sometimes, he got in his own way.
Also, there was this: Tiziani’s family is golfing royalty in Wisconsin. His father and uncle, Larry Tiziani, are in the Wisconsin Golf Hall of Fame. His brother-in-law is the U.S. Ryder Cup captain. His sister, Nicki, was a talented player and married Stricker. There were a lot of shoes to fill, and they were all big. Who needs that kind of pressure?
“I didn’t have a lot of love for the game, to be honest,” he said. “I played for a long time, was very marginal in terms of success and just really needed to get away from it. I didn’t enjoy it for the right reasons I got into it.”
He found a satisfying career as an agent, with a side job toting Stricker’s bag from time to time. His wife, Kressi, is an orthodontist with a successful practice in Minnesota. He has two daughters in college. Life was good. He reinstated as an amateur, but didn’t play in anything in his 40s.
Lately, though, carrying Stricker’s bag and watching the guys with whom he once competed, he found himself missing the game. Anticipating a sponsor’s exemption into the AmFam, he turned pro again – a requirement on the PGA Tour Champions – and in a tune-up won that Minnesota Senior Open, coming from four shots behind on the final day with a 66.
He has kept himself in remarkable shape – he could pass for a player in his late 30s – and still bombs it off the tee.
“I know it’s in there,” he said. “It’s just bringing it out at the right time. I played against a lot of these guys. I’ve played at the highest level on the PGA Tour and these are the same guys. I feel like I’m probably a better golfer now than I was then in terms of mentally, and maybe even physically, to a degree. I feel like the length (off the tee) is there. I was one of the longer ones back when I played the Tour and I feel like I would be one of those here. That’s only part of the puzzle, but length helps. I think that’s been proven. I’m in good shape right now, so I think that’s an asset, for sure.”
The question now is, how much golf does Mario Tiziani want to play? With his connections, he probably would not lack for opportunities through sponsor’s exemptions on the Champions tour. Is this week a one-off, or is he ready to follow the sun again?
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m kind of one week at a time. I think about what comes with it. I’ve done the travel. I’ve done the practicing and the grind. I think it will depend on the success that I have. I was a middle-of-the-road guy and the work just wasn’t worth it for me.
“If I was a player that was in the mix, in the upper echelon all the time, I would do it. But we don’t know.”
The next three days could provide some answers.