The message was delivered in block type, splashed across the
pages of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Shoulder to shoulder
stood the pride of Wisconsin golf--J.P. Hayes, Jerry Kelly, Skip
Kendall and Steve Stricker--framed by these words: HOME-FIELD
ADVANTAGE. Two years ago the Greater Milwaukee Open built its ad
campaign around these homegrown heroes, a quartet of Badgers who
have clawed their way from the frozen tundra to the greener
pastures of the PGA Tour. It marked a milestone of sorts for
golf in the state. In the popular imagination, hailing from
Wisconsin has always been considered a detriment to a golfer's
development, not something to brag about.
"I heard all that stuff coming up," says Andy North, the
two-time U.S. Open champ who was the first Wisconsin golfer to
break through on the national scene. "You know, 'How did you get
so good with a two-month season? Do you play a balata or a
snowball?' I found it's best to let your clubs do the talking.
The success of these four guys has been an eloquent statement
about the caliber of player coming out of Wisconsin."
Last week the Fab Four returned to the Greater Milwaukee Open,
but it is no longer necessary to announce their presence in
newspaper campaigns. They have become as much a part of the
tournament as beer and brats. Hayes, Kelly and Kendall all gave
up the chance to go through the concurrent British Open
qualifying in favor of this little tournament, played on a muni
course--Brown Deer Park--with one of the smallest purses on
Tour. "It's an easy decision," says Kendall, a Milwaukee native
who grew up a couple of miles from Brown Deer. "This is our
This fierce loyalty is in the DNA of all Cheeseheads. The
Greater Milwaukee Open debuted in 1968. Since turning pro in
'73, North, 50, had missed the tournament only twice until last
week, when, keeping his commitment to his new tour, he teed it
up at the Senior Players Championship. Still, he says, "My heart
[was] in Milwaukee."
July 23, 2000
North's presence was nonetheless felt. He played a part in
redesigning Brown Deer in the 1993, and that helped the course
land the tournament in '94. As a longtime member of the event's
board of directors--and as the unofficial head of
publicity--North has helped keep the tournament afloat despite
its lack of a title sponsor. He has been especially helpful in
persuading elite players to drop by every now and then, notably
Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson in the 1970s, and Greg Norman, who
had a wire-to-wire victory in 1989.
Milwaukee hasn't made national headlines since Tiger Woods's pro
debut there in 1996, but no matter. These days the tournament is
less about the Tour's glamour boys than it is a celebration of
Wisconsin golf. (Nine natives were in the field last week.) The
flip side is that for Wisconsin golfers, the Greater Milwaukee
Open is more than just a tournament--it is a rite of passage,
best shared with family. This is where Stricker made some kind
of history in 1995 by playing in the same threesome as his
father- and brother-in-law, Dennis and Mario Tiziani,
respectively, with his wife, Nicki, as his caddie. In '96 Kelly,
a late-blooming 29-year-old rookie at the time, shot a
then-record-tying 265, but he lost a playoff to Loren Roberts.
The second-place check secured Kelly's card, and he has been on
Tour ever since.
"There are no words to describe the excitement of playing at
home," says Kelly, who handed out more than 40 passes last week
to friends and family. "Guys like myself, Skip, J.P., we don't
usually get crowds behind us like the so-called stars do. With
that many people pulling for you, it's impossible not to be
focused." The crowds, however, can be hostile. Says Hayes: "You
walk around out there, and some people are yelling, 'Go
Appleton!'"--Hayes's hometown--"but others are screaming, 'Go
Milwaukee!' or 'Go Madison!' Very partisan."
Amid the lovefest, the self-imposed pressure to perform can be
daunting, which might explain why no frostback has won in
Milwaukee. In 27 tournaments North never finished better than a
tie for seventh. It was more of the same last week. Roberts
broke the tournament record with a 24-under 260 and won by eight
shots over Frank Lickliter. Hayes tied for third, nine back,
while Kendall tied for ninth, Kelly finished 47th and Stricker
At least the home folks are getting close. Stricker, now
Wisconsin's leading man, has excited the state with a couple of
near misses. In '96 he had a 35-foot eagle putt at the last hole
to join the Roberts-Kelly playoff, but he burned the edge of the
cup and had to settle for third. Two years later he battled Jeff
Sluman, a Chicagoan who imported a sizable gallery up I-94, but
ran out of birdies down the stretch and finished a stroke back.
"Sure, there's a little race to see who can win it first," says
Kendall, who tied for sixth last year. "It would be the thrill
of a lifetime."
"As long as one of us wins it someday, that's what matters,"
says Stricker. "The goal is to keep the trophy in the state."
This kind of team spirit has long defined the relationship among
Hayes, Kelly, Kendall and Stricker. A little more than two years
separates the youngest of the bunch, Stricker (33), from the
oldest, Kendall (35). They came of age together, on and off the
course, and have competed against one another since the earliest
levels of junior golf. The legacy of this friendly but fierce
competition is found in the small type of the state's record
books. This quartet won four straight Wisconsin Amateur
championships, from 1985 through '88, and accounted for six
straight state opens, from 1987 through '92.
Stricker, who grew up in Edgerton, a town of 4,250 outside
Madison, has long been the one to beat. "The golden boy," says
Kelly. From the beginning Stricker had the build and the
demeanor, and a remarkably mature game. Kelly, known as
"Madison's other pro," was the wild card, a hard-nosed hockey
player who too often brought a pugilistic attitude to the links.
Kendall was the undersized grinder, overcoming an unorthodox
swing--"The first time I saw Skip swing, it looked as if he were
taking a jump shot," says Hayes--with an XL heart and textbook
course management. Hayes grew up at the Buttes Des Mortes
Country Club, and eschewed his family's lucrative paper business
in favor of golf, his prospects helped considerably by a
flawless putting stroke.
Though all four Badgers are married, and all but Hayes have
children, they still have trouble letting go of the legendary
skirmishes of their youth, like the '85 state amateur, in
which..."I'm playing great," says Hayes. "After three rounds
I've got a four-stroke lead, and in the final round I'm playing
with Steve. Back then beating him was a big deal. Final round he
plays pretty well, I make some mistakes, and he wins by two
strokes. I still remember the score: 291-293. Losing that
tournament was a big letdown. I was trying to be part of the
first father-son duo to win the amateur. [John M. (Jumbo) Hayes
had won it in '53.] Next year's amateur comes around, and this
time Steve's got the four-stroke lead. Final round, I'm playing
with him again, and I put together a little comeback and wind up
winning by two strokes. The score: 291-293."
"I'll never forget the '90 state open," says Kendall, who that
year was bidding to become the first to win three in a row. "I'm
playing with Strick and Jerry, and the lead is going back and
forth. With two holes to go I'm up one, then I finish
bogey-bogey to lose to Steve by a shot. I remember every shot.
You don't get over something like that."
It was more than these shootouts that sent Hayes, Kelly, Kendall
and Stricker on their way to the Tour. "You get a lot of big
tournaments around Chicago, and the golf up here is just as
good," says Hayes. Wisconsin courses are defined by rolling
terrain, towering trees and steeply pitched greens that are more
conducive to draining snowmelt in the spring than putts in the
summer. Then there was the Gene Haas Factor. A bluecoat at
heart, Haas, who retired last fall after 24 years as executive
director of the Wisconsin State Golf Association, was notorious
for the difficult setups he forced the young amateurs to endure.
"To this day, when I see a crazy pin placement, I think of
Gene," says Hayes.
From this training ground Stricker was the first to emerge on
the pro scene. He won his first mini-tour event, in Canada. In
'96, his third season on the PGA Tour, he won two tournaments
and $1.4 million to place fourth on the money list, earning
spots in the Presidents Cup and Dunhill Cup. (At the latter he
led the U.S. to victory, going 5-0.) Tall, blond and easygoing,
Stricker was a star in the making. Though he has never quite
fulfilled his promise, Stricker had another big year in '98,
finishing 13th on the money list and coming in second at the PGA
That August weekend two years ago was the most exciting thing to
happen to Wisconsin golf since North's U.S. Open wins, in 1978
and '85. While Stricker was battling Vijay Singh down to the
wire at Sahalee Country Club outside Seattle, the state's most
successful player, LPGA standout Sherri Steinhauer, was sweeping
to victory at the Women's British Open. (Steinhauer, who learned
at the knee of Manuel de la Torre, the iconic head pro at
Milwaukee Country Club, would repeat in '99.) Though Stricker
hasn't won on Tour since '96, he remains wildly popular at home,
in part because he continues to lend support to more tournaments
than just the Greater Milwaukee Open. (In 1998 he won his fourth
state open--one shy of the career record shared by De la Torre
and two others.) Last week at Brown Deer, Stricker drew by far
the largest crowds of a starless field. "Steve Stricker in
Wisconsin is like Tiger Woods anywhere else," says Dan Blackman,
the tournament's media director.
None of the other Badgers begrudge Stricker his popularity or
his success--"I'm used to the hoopla. I've been answering
questions about him for 20 years," says Hayes--in part because
each is doing fine on his own. In 1998 Hayes slew Jim Furyk in a
playoff at Westchester for his first win, and with $721,314 this
year Hayes and his magic wand have already set a career high in
annual earnings. Kendall, the Steady Eddie who has finished
second twice but has never won, is closing in on $3 million in
career earnings, and with his $62,500 last week has the good
news-bad news distinction of being the third-leading money
winner among the Tour's winless. "I'll take it as a compliment,"
says Kendall. "I want to win as much as anybody, and plan to,
but at least that means I've been consistent."
Kelly has traveled the longest road. He went to the University
of Hartford on a hockey scholarship--he still has the scars from
five broken bones as a souvenir of his days on skates--but upon
his arrival on campus the program was dropped, which led him to
commit to golf. Not until Kelly's five-stroke victory at the '92
Wisconsin State Open (over Stricker, natch) did he believe he
could compete at the highest levels. In '95 he married Carol
Schuman, sister of Jim Schuman, once the hottest prospect in
Wisconsin. "I tried to get his swing by marrying into the
family," says Kelly.
Shortly after the wedding Kelly began working with sports
psychologist Bob Rotella, and with his mind at ease, the
blissful newlywed played the best golf of his life, winning
twice on the Nike tour and topping its money list. He's still
trying to get back to that level. Since late '97 Kelly has been
overhauling his swing, formerly a flat, slap-shot action that
was so flawed he used the stiffest shafts on Tour. Like Kendall,
he believes a victory is imminent. "If it's not the Masters or
U.S. Open, I'd hope it is the Greater Milwaukee Open," says Kelly.
This kind of devotion to their home tournament has led some to
call Hayes, Kelly, Kendall and Stricker the saviors of the
event. Without a doubt they have made great contributions, and
their impact is felt at every level of golf in Wisconsin. But,
says Kelly, "People talk about what we've done for Wisconsin,
but they've got it backward. It's what the state has done for us."
Says Hayes, "Some people are yelling, 'Go Appleton!' but others
are screaming, 'Go Milwaukee!' or 'Go Madison!' Very partisan."
"People talk about what we've done for Wisconsin," says Kelly,
"but they've got it backward. It's what the state has done for