American Family Insurance crowds 2019

A crowd gathers on the 10th hole to watch Steve Stricker tee off during the 2019 American Family Insurance Championship.

MADISON – The American Family Insurance Championship and the PGA Tour Champions on Wednesday announced that they have agreed to a seven-year contract extension that will keep the popular tournament at University Ridge Golf Course through 2027.

The Steve Stricker American Family Insurance Foundation will remain as the host organization. The agreement begins with this year’s tournament, which starts Friday.

“Very exciting news,” Stricker said. “We've been blessed to have unbelievable support from the community, the fans, the sponsors, obviously a great organization in AmFam and the sponsorship that we need to make it work.

“This (extension) takes me to my 60th birthday. Hopefully, I'm playing still by then.”

In just four years, the AmFam Championship, which was canceled in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, has raised $10.2 million for charity, half of it donated to the American Family Insurance Children’s Hospital and the other half to more than 400 nonprofits.

The tournament is one of the biggest sporting events in Dane County and is a popular stop on the Champions tour. The field this week includes Stricker, defending champion Jerry Kelly, Fred Couples, Jim Furyk, Ernie Els and John Daly.

The AmFam changed to an invitational format this year and offers the biggest purse of any non-major championship on the PGA Tour Champions. The winner Sunday will take home $360,000 from the purse of $2.4 million. After announcing initially that 5,000 fans would be allowed to attend, the AmFam has raised the daily total to 7,500.

“This is really the first major sporting event that is back in Dane County,” said Jack Salzwedel, American Family Insurance chairman and CEO. “We weren't sure earlier how the county would react to fans being here. That was something that was really important for us, not only as an organization as American Family, but also as a tournament.

“We've been able to get fans back at the level of 7,500, so we're very excited about that. We have a field that is absolutely second to none thanks to the folks at the PGA (Tour Champions) and our player-host Steve Stricker, as well. We have a great purse. … All that leads to, I think, a great tournament.”

The AmFam is a two-time recipient of the PGA Tour Champions President’s Award, presented annually to the tournament that demonstrates outstanding achievement in charitable giving, sales, attendance and economic impact.

“When you have a hometown title sponsor in AmFam, you have a hometown host in Steve Stricker, longtime player on the PGA Tour, now the Champions tour, University Ridge … it's the ingredients that bring this together and makes it really easy for (tournament director) Nate (Pokrass) and his team to help sell the tournament,” said Miller Brady, president of the PGA Tour Champions. “You have a great community. The players love staying downtown. It's a great foodie city. It feels great.”

He almost got through it

Stricker has gotten close to Salzwedel, who has announced his retirement and is in his last year as chairman and CEO of American Family Insurance. When Stricker was asked about their friendship, he had trouble getting the words out.

“Yeah, it's meant everything,” he said. “He's been there, he's been an unbelievable supporter of the event …”

At that point, Stricker stopped to gather himself. After several seconds he continued, “… someone that when I come and float an idea by, he’s all in.”

Several more seconds went by as Stricker bit his lip and fought back tears. Finally, he tapped Salzwedel on the shoulder and croaked, “He’s a good friend.”

Marquee groupings

Stricker, Couples and Furyk will be the first group off the No. 1 tee to start the opening round at 9:10 a.m. Friday. They will be followed by Kelly, Scott McCarron and Kirk Triplett at 9:20; Els, Retief Goosen and Weir at 9:30; and Bernhard Langer, Vijay Singh and David Toms at 9:40.

Two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North of Madison tees off at 11:10 a.m. off the first tee. The next group, at 11:20, includes Madison native Mario Tiziani, Fox Point native Skip Kendall and former major-league pitcher John Smoltz.

The 81-player field includes six members of the World Golf Hall of Fame: Couples, Els, Goosen, Langer, Singh and Colin Montgomerie.

Seems like old times

Canadian Mike Weir, a rookie on the PGA Tour Champions, goes back a long way with Stricker and Kelly.

“I mean, I remember playing Q School with Jerry back in, boy, that was in the early '90s we played,” he said. “I think we first met, we played in California, the second stage of Q School, we got paired together and hit it off. We both loved sports and hockey in particular, so we had that commonality.

“And then I played with Steve on the Canadian Tour back in the early days, cutting our teeth in professional golf, kind of making our way. Steve got up there a little earlier than I did and has had great success. They're both great guys and represent the game in such a great way, and the community here in Madison. We just always had a great relationship.”

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