For the first three years of the American Family Insurance Championship, Andy North has been a loyal foot soldier to tournament host and fellow Madison golfer Steve Stricker in making the tournament one of the premier events on the PGA Tour Champions.

Now, North will become a tournament host on his own.

The two-time U.S. Open winner-turned-ESPN golf commentator will serve as host for the Sanford International, a new PGA Tour Champions event later this month in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The event is sponsored by Sanford Health, a large regional health system based in the Dakotas but with some 45 hospitals and 300 clinics in nine states and four countries.

He becomes the third Wisconsin golfer to host an event on the senior circuit. Madison's Jerry Kelly hosts the Cologuard Classic, sponsored by Madison-based Exact Sciences, in Tucson, Arizona, in early March while Stricker has been the tournament host of the Am Fam Championship since it started in 2016.

North has been involved with Sanford Health for about 10 years. A major booster of University of Wisconsin sports, he met Sanford CEO Kelby Krabbenhoft when Krabbenhoft’s son, Joe, played basketball for the Badgers. Joe Krabbenhoft is now an assistant coach for UW.

At Kelby Krabbenhoft’s invitation, North became involved with Sanford’s hospitals and other facilities and now serves on the health system’s Board of Trustees.

The idea of bringing a PGA Tour Champions event to South Dakota arose when it became clear the tour’s Minneapolis event would transition into a PGA Tour event, which North said left a void for the senior circuit.

“We thought why not do a Champions event. We knew the one in Minneapolis was going away (and) we thought there would be a chance to draw from Minneapolis, the Dakotas, Iowa” and perhaps elsewhere, North said.

The new tournament, which will be played Sept. 20 through 23 at Minnehaha CC in Sioux Falls, is not the company’s only big move into golf.

Sanford recently announced plans for a new three-story golf entertainment facility that would become part of the existing Sanford Sports Complex. The facility, to be called Great Shots, will be similar to the popular Topgolf entertainment centers in that it will feature 60 hitting bays, golf games, food and bar service. Keven Lampe, executive vice-president for Sanford Sports, said the emphasis will be on family entertainment but is still in keeping with the system’s overall mission of improving public health.

“The fact that you get people up off the couch and moving is (important),” he said. “It has gaming options for everybody from age 2, if they have learned to swing a club, to the person who is fully retired and just wants to be entertained.”

In addition, Great Shots will house the Sanford POWER Golf Academy that offers golfers instruction, physical therapy and conducts injury prevention research. Construction on the estimated $12 million facility is set to begin this fall with completion in late 2019 or early 2020, Lampe said.

North said Great Shots will be a nice addition to the nearly 500-acre Sports Complex, which includes facilities for football, baseball, basketball, soccer, tennis, volleyball and other sports. For golfers especially, he said, it will mean “the entire package,” from swing assessment to physical analysis and allow players to work on their games year-round. On top of that, the entertainment aspects can’t be ignored.

“It’s going to be a destination for families from 300 miles around,” he said.

Similarly, organizers expect the Sanford International will draw fans from a wide area. Plans call for two days of pro-am competition, a celebrity pairing of North, Jack Nicklaus, Graham Marsh and Dave Stockton Sr., off-course activities such as a chance to go hunting before play begins and a banquet at Sanford House, where the Board of Trustees holds its meetings.

Sanford House is also where, North said, there will be a replica of the iconic par 3 12th hole at Augusta National GC. No doubt, he said, “we will have an event of chance a lot of people will want to get into.”

Using “international” in the tournament’s name reflects Sanford’s involvement in other countries, he said. And he called Minnehaha CC “a fun little golf course we think these guys will have fun playing.”

North was not able to spend much time recruiting players at the Am Fam Championship because he spent much of that week in South Dakota, but he expects players will find the new event enticing – even familiar.

“We’re trying to get the word out that this is going to be an event much like Madison," North said. "It’s going to be a lot of fun. We’re real excited. We think it’s going to be a great fit for the community (and) our area in the Dakotas is responding much like Madison has.”

One example: a call for 700 volunteers for the event was quickly met.

“It’s great for this town,” North said. “It’s another event in a city that cares for it. It’s not a corporate event, it’s a community event.”

In the Dakotas, the sense of community comes without rigid borders because many people in the lightly populated region are willing to drive long distances for fun and recreation, Lampe said. North agreed, adding a high quality professional golf event should find lots of fans, especially in a region with no professional teams competing for residents’ time and loyalty.

“There are people out there,” North said, “who actually think that the Vikings are a team to root for.”

djmccann@centurytel.net

A Wisconsin native & longtime newspaperman, Dennis has been writing about golf for more than 20 years. When not profiling golf's colorful characters or the courses they play, he can usually be found golfing at beautiful Apostle Highlands GC in Bayfield.