Steve Stricker, Ernie Els tied atop leaderboard with Jerry Kelly in the hunt at AmFam Championship

MADISON – The first two rounds of the American Family Insurance Championship at University Ridge Golf Course in Madison were defined by gusting winds, firm and fast greens and then a steady rain that lengthened the course for the PGA Tour Champions field.

As such, it made sense that one of the tour’s longest hitters and top scorers – and one with two Open Championships on his résumé – would put together an impressive 8-under par 64 on Saturday to take a share of the second-round lead.

Four-time major champion Ernie Els finished his final seven holes at 6-under par, highlighted by an eagle on the par 5, 16th, to break out of a logjam of players and take a share of the tournament lead at 9-under par.

Ernie Els captured a share of the lead at the American Family Insurance Championship at 9-under par Saturday.
Ernie Els captured a share of the lead at the American Family Insurance Championship at 9-under par Saturday.

“The whole day was kind of a chase,” Els said. “We had 1-under (to start), I knew the leaders with the conditions, I felt I needed to get to 8-under, that was kind of my goal. The whole day was a bit of a chase, to be honest. I was trying to get birdies, trying to get up the leaderboard, whatever it takes. So 16 was just one of those holes that really helped because the hole round was trying to chase, get as many birdies as I can.”

One of the many players Els initially sped past was defending champion and tournament host Steve Stricker, who took notice and then hit the gas on the back nine with four straight birdies on holes 14-17 to propel him to a 6-under 66 on the day and match Els atop the leaderboard.

PGA Tour: American Family Insurance Championship scores

"I get a lot of support here," Stricker said. "I feel that love right away from the first tee on. And then especially when I can finish the way I did today made things a lot more fun and enjoyable, got me right back in the tournament. For a while there, I made bogey at 13 up the hill with a wedge in my hand, looking to make a birdie and I make a bogey, so I was 4 back at that point. I needed to make a good, strong finish and I did."

Stricker and Els will go off in the final group, along with David Duval (7-under), at 10:52 a.m.

But, if Kelly has anything to say about it he’ll run down Els and Stricker to win his third AmFam Championship.

Stricker will head into Sunday’s final round with a strong chance to match Jerry Kelly as a two-time tournament champion.

Steve Stricker will head into Sunday’s final round looking to become a two-time tournament champion at the American Family Insurance Championship.
Steve Stricker will head into Sunday’s final round looking to become a two-time tournament champion at the American Family Insurance Championship.

"Yeah, it depends on the weather," Stricker said. "I saw 15- to 25-mile an hour winds again tomorrow, could be another tough day like we had on Friday, but I guess we'll just have to wait and see what it gives us or brings us. You know, you're going to have to put up a good number. Got good players up at the top. Ernie Els won last week and he's playing good, so you're going to have to shoot a good one but be smart depending on the weather."

A day after a 3-under par first round on Friday – a performance which he said was produced with smoke and mirrors – Kelly backed it up with a substantive 3-under to remain in the hunt. He rattled off five straight birdies on holes 11-15 on Friday and took advantage of that stretch again on Saturday with a birdie on 14 and dunked an eagle on 15.

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"I didn't find much swinging," he said. "I had two three-putts, that's not like me, either. Without those two three-putts and actually making a couple of makeable putts, I'm right there. For the way that I felt the last couple days, being three shots back heading into the last round, I'm happy, I'm all right. I know there's a low one in me, I just hope it's tomorrow."

Kirk Triplett (2016) and Fred Couples (2017) each came from three shots back to win the tournament in their respective years.

Kelly, who is playing through treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, will be paired with Tim O'Neal (6-under) and Chris DiMarco (5-under) at 10:41 a.m.

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"I mean, it's got to be at least 7(-under), probably 9, which it's doable on this," Kelly said. "But the other thing is it might be gusting, you know, 25, 30 gusts in different directions. Once that happens, all bets are off. If I can just bump my ball up there onto the greens and get hot with the putter, then anything can happen."

For his part, Els, who won last week at the Principal Charity Classic, knows what he is facing with Stricker and Kelly in the hunt.

“I'm in a good position,” Els said. “There's a lot of guys up there. Depending on conditions you're going to have to shoot a good score. Stricker is going to be still the man to beat tomorrow, going with the crowd and everybody. I don't know how Jerry's playing, but there's a lot of really good players up there. We've just got to do what we have to do."

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Fox Point’s Skip Kendall, who is making his first PGA Tour Champions start of the year, shot an even par 72 to remain at 2-under for the tournament. Kendall no longer plays regularly, instead instructing at schools in Orlando and Palm Coast, Florida.

“I probably played equally as well, just didn't make the putts that I did (Friday),” Kendall said. “I had a lot of opportunities. You know, I didn't putt bad. I always felt like I had one of those like straight putts that it was going to go one way or the other and I guessed wrong, I guess.”

University of Wisconsin alumnus Mario Tiziani carded a 72 as well and is 1-under for the tournament.

“I'm playing fine, I expect to play well (Sunday),” Tiziani said. “If I can get something 5, 6, 7 under, that would be awesome, it would be a great finish. Take a week off and get ready for hopefully Dick's (Sporting Goods Open next week) and then Senior (U.S.) Open.”

Fox Point professional Michael Crowley shot a 2-over 74 and is 6-over for the tournament.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Steve Stricker, Ernie Els tied at AmFam Championship; Kelly in hunt