MADISON — Away from the clamor of the 18th green where Jerry Kelly was about to don the crown Sunday as repeat champion of the American Family Insurance Championship after holding off some of the biggest names on the PGA Tour Champions, a 71-year-old icon strolled onto the ninth green at University Ridge Golf Course to a quiet audience of maybe 25 onlookers.
Some were tournament volunteers. Most of the AmFam tournament staff, led by tournament director Nate Pokrass, had gathered to watch, as well. So had AmFam CEO Jack Salzwedel and a few other AmFam executives. Of course, North's wife Sue, who has been at her husband's side for most of his six decades on the PGA Tour, was there with the couple's two daughters, Nicole and Andrea.
But the most important member of the gallery was Sadie Kean, whose job it was to serve up the first hug after her grandfather made the last of four consecutive pars to finish off what had otherwise been a long afternoon.
"That was about the only good part," North would say later.
Indeed, the two-time U.S. Open champion from Madison clearly took one for the team this week when he acquiesced to the idea — with no Saturday celebrity foursome to anchor as he had the first four years of the AmFam Championship due to COVID-19 protocols — that he tee it up again for real. Inside the ropes. All 54 holes. For the sixth decade in a PGA Tour-run event.
His 79-74-82 card wasn't the point of adding North to the 81-player field in the AmFam's first year as an invitational. It was all about giving an appreciative and engaged gallery a chance to thank a guy who played his first official PGA Tour event in 1972 and has given so much to the game of golf ever since.
"It was nice; I mean, it was really nice," North said of his weekend inside the ropes, his first on the PGA Tour Champions since the last of what were annual appearances with close friend Tom Watson at the now-defunct Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf in 2019 and the first event playing his own ball all 54 holes since the 2017 Mitsubishi Electric Championship. "Anytime you've got people that appreciate of what you've done, it's pretty cool. That was nice."
We will see Andy North again. There is a fundraiser planned later this summer in conjunction with the opening of the new short course he designed, 12North at Trappers Turn Golf Club in Wisconsin Dells — "A mini-(Andy North &) Friends," he said — that will raise money for the UW Carbone Cancer Center, a cause for which he and Susan have helped raise more than $11 million. North will again host the Sanford International in Sioux Falls, S.D., on the PGA Tour Champions in September and looks forward to teeing it up in the Saturday exhibition there.
And the 2022 Saturday celebrity foursome, once the AmFam Championship is returned to full normalcy, would not be complete without his presence. North just has a way of making former pro athletes and golf legends enjoy the day.
At the end of our five-minute interview, though, I apologized in advance for going all Tom Rinaldi on him, but I had to ask the kind of question that his former ESPN colleague would ask at a time like this: "If this was, indeed, his final competitive event, can you go back to the young Andy North that set out to play professional golf and reflect on how far this game has taken you?"
"Oh gosh, that was 50 years ago," North replied. "I played my first (PGA) Tour event 50 years ago. At that point in time, you're just trying to figure out a way to keep your card and move on to the next year. If someone had told me you're going to play 10 years, that would have been awesome. But if someone had told me it was going to be 50? You'd have been like (sarcastically) 'Sure.'
"I went to school (at the University of Florida) with the idea that I was going to have to work."
Yet, here he was — the home-state idol to so many junior golfers of my generation as we grew up in the game between his first U.S. Open victory at Cherry Hills near Denver in 1978 and his second U.S. Open win at Oakland Hills near Detroit seven years later — talking about his career in the past tense.
That's not a day two guys for whom North has blazed a trail were quite ready to come to grips with Sunday. Yet it is quite possible that the final PGA Tour-sanctioned event in which North's name appears in the scores could have come Sunday at an event that Madison's Steve Stricker hosts and Kelly, another Madisonian, won by one stroke.
"I did just get a little bit of chills on that one," Kelly said during his champion's news conference when that possibility was posed to him. "I hate the fact that he thinks he's hanging it up. (But) I understand it. He's been through so many surgeries that you can't even count them anymore. I hurt at 54; I can't imagine what he feels like, so I fully understand. And he deserves to be able to (do that) with the dignity that he has because he's been a great champion."
Stricker agreed on all counts.
"He's meant everything to us," Stricker said following the trophy presentation on the 18th green. "He was the guy we looked up to when we were junior golfers. We watched and cheered for him when we were playing junior golf. And then him literally taking us under his wings as we continued our quest to play on Tour and to play out there. He was always like the older brother or another dad to kind of help us along."
At the same time, North knows how it feels to see his idols grow old. Like Kelly and Stricker, he felt fortunate to play with his as long as he did.
"My guys were Nicklaus and Palmer mainly," North said. "The neatest thing is I got a chance to play a lot with them. They were your heroes, then you got to compete against them and you end up being really good friends at the end of our time.
"I spent last week with Jack (Nicklaus) at Muirfield and it's always great being around he and Barbara. Got a chance to take a group to play golf with Arnold about a year before he was gone. Those are special guys. That was neat, that was neat. Jack's become a great, great friend.
"It's frustrating when you see guys age. He didn't age at all and all of a sudden, bam."
North still exudes "cool" when he comes into our living room from major championships on ESPN's "SportsCenter." However, these days, he's also Sadie's grandfather and, at 71, he felt every bit of that reality this weekend as he mulled decisions unique to guys his age with bad backs: Walk or ride.
This week? It was about walking or riding at expansive University Ridge.
At some point soon? It might be about walking or riding into the proverbial sunset.
"So, it's been a great run," North told me, the emotions that go with those words forming, just a little, in his eyes, if not his throat. "The friends and all the cool places you've been able to go and the cool things you've been able to do because of it and things your kids have been able to do because of it, it's pretty neat."