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Stricker, Kelly and Kendall near lead after first round of the AmFam Championship

Tournament host Steve Stricker of Madison shot an opening-round, 3-under 69 Friday and was one stroke off the lead at the American Family Insurance Championship at University Ridge Golf Club.
Tournament host Steve Stricker of Madison shot an opening-round, 3-under 69 Friday and was one stroke off the lead at the American Family Insurance Championship at University Ridge Golf Club.

MADISON – Steve Stricker was defending, Jerry Kelly was fighting and Skip Kendall was plugging – and the trio of Wisconsinites ended the first round of the American Family Insurance Championship in a stack of 18 players within two shots of first round co-leaders Glen Day and Boo Weekley, who finished Friday’s round at University Ridge Golf Course in Madison with 4-under 68s.

“I would have thought 6-under would be leading just on the way, the way some of the holes were,” Weekley said.

Stricker, the tournament host and defending champion, felt he struck the ball well enough to have gone 5- or 6-under but couldn’t make enough putts before finishing with a 3-under 69.

“It was a challenge,” Stricker said. “I mean, the wind was gusty, the greens were super fast, the ball was moving around once you putted it, you know, the wind would take it. That was the hard part probably is getting a good feel on the greens. Some of them could really get away from you and one did on me on, especially on 17. I was able to make it coming back. You really had to be careful not just running it by 8, 10 feet on some of these downwind putts.”

Stricker was joined at 3-under by Kelly, who strung together five straight birdies on the back nine to claim a share of the lead at one point but admitted he did it with “smoke and mirrors” as he continues to play while undergoing treatment for rheumatoid arthritis.

“I didn't feel like my body responded very well,” Kelly said. “I know I'm jumpy, but that's ridiculous, a little explosion on every shot, doesn't matter if it's driver or a putt. So, you know, battled through it and see if I can shoot a couple low ones, who knows.”

Kendall, a Fox Point native, who now primarily teaches at the Orlando Golf Academy in Florida briefly touched the lead as well at 4-under before finishing with a 2-under 70. Playing on a sponsor’s exemption, the AmFam Championship is his first start on the PGA Tour Champions in 2024 and just his second competitive tournament of the year.

“I'm going to take one shot at a time,” said Kendall, who is opening a new academy at Hammock Beach in Palm Coast, Florida and helping to design wedges for Sub 70 Golf. “It's the old cliché. I didn't come here with any real high expectations, but with that being said, like I told Nate, hey, if a couple putts drop, I can still play. If it stays this tough, I don't know if the scoring's going to be real, real low. You know, just stay upright and see what happens.”

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While Kendall is at total ease, Kelly is trying to find some peace. He said he’s trying to conserve energy by not getting too fired up on the course, but also is trying not to get too down on himself when things don’t go right.

He eventually acknowledged that he was happy to finish the first round at 3-under, but it didn’t change his outlook for the weekend as he tries to become a three-time tournament champion.

“I mean, I told you I'd like to compete,” Kelly said. “I feel like if I can get my body to respond to what I'm thinking, I mean, I can still think my way around a golf course and play well. But it's the reactions, I'm having a tough time figuring out where they're coming from, but it's just, I don't know.”

More: Madison's Jerry Kelly on playing golf with rheumatoid arthritis: 'I'm not going to quit.'

Stricker on the other hand just needed to get his putter smoothed out – which may bode ill for his fellow competitors. One of the best putters of his generation, Stricker appeared to figure out some equipment issues that have been affecting his play the first part of the year.

“It’s nice to be introduced as the defending champion – I'm just trying to get back there again, trying to get in that position again come Sunday,” he said. “And hopefully I've got to get this putter worked out, that's the bottom line. I hit it well enough today to shoot 5 or 6 under and to walk away with 3 is a little bit disappointing. So I've just got to get it in the hole a little bit quicker.”

The blustery conditions and quick greens didn’t allow for any player to run away with the first round. Another 10 players, including University of Wisconsin alumnus Mario Tiziani, are within three shots of the lead at 1-under par.

“Once you turn into the wind, there's some beasts out there, really tough holes,” said Duffy Waldorf, one of the six players at 3-under. “The 10th hole's playing really long, the seventh hole's tough, eighth hole's tough. There's just a bunch of holes with this 15-, 20-mile an hour wind that makes it -- those are bogey holes. Normally you get a bunch of birdie holes and then the hard holes you can make par. There's some bogeys out there, and then the holes that are usually a little easier are tough with this kind of wind.”

Fox Point professional Michael Crowley shot a 4-over 76 in his first round.

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Stricker, Kelly and Kendall near lead after round one of AmFam Championship